Four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening and two-time Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster give the world a joyful acting lesson in “Nyad,” and you won’t want to miss it. A feature film debut from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi of the terrifying, mountain-climbing documentaries “Meru” (2015) and “Free Solo” (2018), the film is based on long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s 2015 memoir “Find a Way” adapted by screenwriter Julia Cox (TV’s “Recovery Road”).
Slyly slipping in some archival footage, Chin and Vasarhelyi fill in the background history.
Nyad, who took her surname from the Greek word for “water nymph” at the encouragement of her father, set records swimming across Lake Ontario and around Manhattan Island and from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles). The action begins when Nyad (Bening) tolerates a surprise 60th birthday party thrown by her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Foster). A Boomer born in 1949, Nyad worked for 30 years for ABC News, and she hasn’t been in the water in ages. But she’s a fierce Scrabble competitor, and she doesn’t want to “succumb to mediocrity” in her old age. Like Tennyson’s Odysseus, she dreams of a crowning, final adventure, and she concocts a plan to swim from Cuba to Key West.
At the local pool, Nyad gets into the water and doesn’t get out until after dark. She’s just warming up. Speaking to a class of children, she admits that she poops in the water during marathon swims. What are the dangers? Sharks, stingrays, Portuguese man o’ wars and venomous jellyfish.
Diana and Bonnie arrange for a team of young kayakers to protect her during the swim using an electric “shield” to repel sharks. It doesn’t however work on jellyfish. After a terrible introductory meeting, Diana enlists dyspeptic charter fisherman John Bartlett (Rhys Iffans, completing an acting trifecta) as her navigator. It is inevitable that Diana, who sports a red light on her bathing cap, will vomit seawater and hallucinate during her swim. Bonnie and the team keep close to Diana in the boat, cruising at the same speed and keeping a light on the swimmer. Bonnie and John are vigilant.
During the swims, while Diana sings and counts, we see what she is thinking. We get a rather cheesy-looking version of the Taj Mahal in one of these scenes. But we also encounter her childhood, her introduction to competitive swimming, and her sexual abuse as a child by a beloved coach.
Bonnie and Diana are a gay comedy team, arguing, bantering and fighting over Diana’s willingness to risk her life. A crowd cheers Diana on her first attempt. By the fifth, Diana is older and the crowds have gone. But she and her assistants have engineered a body suit and eerie face mask that she can wear to protect her from jellyfish at night. Yes, it is exciting to see Bening, Foster, Iffans et al reenact Nyad’s relentless five attempts to make the swim. But it is the bond between Diana and Bonnie that is the film’s beating heart and its strength. In 2013, at the age of 64, Nyad sets a record for longest ocean swim without shark cage or flippers, 110 miles. She is a true legend. But the film is a celebration of two women’s friendship and of two of America’s greatest actors putting on a great show. Onward.
(“Nyad” contains scene suggesting sexual abuse, profanity and brief nudity)
Rated PG-13. At the Landmark Kendall Square. Grade: A-