There’s a story long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (played by Annette Bening in documentary filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s first narrative effort, “Nyad”) loves to tell about herself — OK, there are allegedly lots of stories Diana Nyad loves to tell about herself, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll stick with this one — about the provenance of her last name. “Nyad” traces back to “naiad,” a Greek mythological aquatic nymph. You can see why Nyad would be so taken with this coincidence, one allegedly drilled into her ad nauseam by her father, Aristotle Nyad, who we repeatedly meet in flashback during the film, only later to learn — oops! — he was actually her stepfather, thus rendering moot one of the myths Diana built for and about herself.

More thrilling: the myths that ended up being true. Over the course of their lauded documentary filmmaking career, Vasarhelyi and Chin have been consistently compelled by outsized personalities driven to accomplish seemingly insane physical (and thus also mental and emotional) feats of strength, from rock climber Alex Honnold in “Free Solo” to the brave rescuers of the Tham Luang cave rescue in “The Rescue.” Diana Nyad’s story, though absolutely fit for a documentary (literally: the 2013 effort “The Other Shore” chronicled the same unbelievable true story that Vasarhelyi and Chin dramatize for “Nyad”), does make for a canny jaunt into narrative waters for the duo. And bolstered by the splashy performances of Bening and co-star Jodie Foster, “Nyad” is the kind of crowd-pleasing true story that will make audiences stand up and cheer (both during a limited theatrical run and then during its Netflix streaming release to follow).

And, because this is not a documentary, “Nyad” does manage to make off with a few potential elisions of the truth, focusing more narrowly on Diana Nyad’s most notable long-distance swimming accomplishments, gliding gently over a career that has often been called into question (and seems bound for more queries as awards season proceeds apace). Here is what we do know, and what “Nyad” closely tracks: after trying (and failing) to swim from Cuba to Florida (distance: about 110 miles) when she was 28 years old, Nyad became possessed of the idea (thirty years later!) that she should try it again. And she did. Four more times.

You don’t need to know much about sports biopics to guess how Diana Nyad’s central quest ended, but any lingering questions about the mettle and determination of Diana the character are instantly laid to rest, care of Bening’s brittle, brassy, and enthralling performance of the woman. This is not someone who is going to give up her dream, ever, and Bening (who trained for over a year for the role, and it shows) eagerly embodies this singular swimmer, the kind of person some bored development executive might term “unlikable” but one who is, for better or worse, wholly herself. You couldn’t make up Diana Nyad, no one would believe it.

NYAD. Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD. Cr.Liz Parkinson/Netflix ©2023
“Nyad”Liz Parkinson/Netflix

When on-screen Diana decides she’s going to try out her signature swim again — to repeat, three decades on from her ill-fated first try, her swimming career long behind her, a whole other lifetime lived as a sportscaster gone, the list goes on and on — her self-mythologizing nature can only take her so far. She needs a coach. The best bet: her long-time best friend, former girlfriend, and chosen person, Bonnie (a dazzling Foster). Bonnie, herself a former professional racquetball player, is uniquely suited to the task; mostly, if there is anyone who can say no to the irrepressible Diana, it’s Bonnie.

As the steely-eyed (and soon, thanks to an eye-popping fitness routine, steely-limbed) Diana sets her sights on a dream that she feels she is uniquely suited to accomplish (Julia Cox’s script wisely builds in plenty of moments to eye-roll at Diana’s lofty ambitions and even loftier beliefs in them), she and Bonnie collect both steadfast believers (like navigator John Bartlett, played by Rhys Ifans, sporting a worrisome American accent) and troubling blowback (including literal blowback, thanks to the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream). Diana, hellbent on perfection and success and striving, cannot stop, even after her swims are scuttled multiple times and for multiple reasons (come for the raging storms, stay for the terrifying box jellyfish attack).

Vasarhelyi and Chin occasionally fold in archival footage of the real-life Nyad’s swims alongside the Bening-starring bits, a gamble that only pays off during a thrilling segment that juxtaposes Diana’s first attempt with her second one, switching back and forth between them and finding shocking similarities throughout. Less successful are attempts to dramatize Diana’s younger years through sequences that literally look as if they’ve been filmed underwater, all watery lens and prismatic effects (the meat of those sequences, however, is key to more fully understanding Diana, including scenes dedicated to her mercurial stepfather and her first coach, both of whom inflicted serious pain on the young swimmer).

Throughout the tumultuous journey, Diana’s biggest problem seems to be, well, herself. Her drive, her ambition, her single-minded focus all push her into rough waters, forcing those around (like Foster’s Bonnie, who remains show-stealing throughout) to accommodate until they can no longer stand it. How can swimming possibly measure up to what amounts to the battle for one’s soul? The film might be a sports drama — and we’ve seen plenty of male-centered sports dramas that follow dudes doing the same stuff Diana did, without worries of “likability” — but its best choices are the more emotional ones, like tracking the bond between Diana and Bonnie.

NYAD. (L-R) Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll and Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD. Cr. Kimberley French/Netflix ©2023
“Nyad”Kimberley French/Netflix

That’s a tough ask in the world of Hollywood biopics — “please, turn this remarkable sports tale into a story about the platonic love between a pair of older women” — and Vasarhelyi and Chin do their best to stuff as much of it in alongside the more predictable beats of a story seemingly made for the movies. It’s only in the film’s final moments that Diana realizes the power of the team, but “Nyad” would have felt just that much deeper if the film itself recognized it earlier. There’s more to “Nyad” than Diana, and there’s more to this story than swimming.

Grade: B-

Netflix will release “Nyad” in select theaters on Friday, October 20, with a streaming release on its platform to follow on Friday, November 3.

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