Annette Bening has been nominated for an Academy Award five times, including for Nyad, but has never won. | Andrea Raffin

Nyad, the 2023 biopic based on the memoir of the titular swimmer Diana Nyad, has all the trappings of greatness about it. Proudly touting two Academy Award nominations for its starring actresses Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, the Oscar-nominated film takes us through the true(ish) story of Nyad’s quest to complete the historic 110-mile swim between Cuba to Florida.

What should have been a two-day endurance test devolved into a decades-spanning saga for Nyad as her swim attempts were thwarted by a run of near-lethal bad luck in the open water, from allergic reactions to jellyfish attacks to storms of biblical proportions.

The triumph of the human spirit isn’t framed as the completion of the swim itself, but of picking yourself up and trying again after so many setbacks – and, not for nothing, doing it at age 64 when many younger swimmers in the prime of their fitness could not.

For a movie that carefully toes the line appealing to both the highbrow and the lowbrow, the elevated Oscar-bait-iness of the biopic and the crowd-pleasing stock plot line of the inspirational sports drama, it unfortunately fails on both fronts to achieve anything in the ballpark of justifying the two hours of your life it will take to watch it.

Most baffling of all is how the lead performances have been plucked out specifically for praise throughout the awards season when Bening and Foster, who both have proven themselves through generations of iconic film roles to be immensely talented and capable actors, are giving far from their best here.

The relationship explored at the center of the movie is that of Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll, the latter of whom wears many hats on their journey – best friend, ex-lover, coach and, for narrative purposes, sidekick.

But both actors are given little in the way of exploring who their characters are (based on real people, certainly, but this is a dramatization and not a documentary) outside of the push and pull of the training montage. The conflict between them is always managed, and the performances come off incredibly one-note as a consequence.

In clips early on in the film of Nyad herself on talk shows from her early years of notoriety as a swimmer, her cockiness and headstrong charisma are immediately palpable in her repartee with the hosts and how she carries herself.

But as the film shifts to Bening’s interpretation of Nyad, the tameness of her performance just doesn’t match up to the larger-than-life self-mythologizing of Nyad herself. Particularly in the repetitive moments of Nyad’s insistence upon nominative determinism and her ancient Greek destiny to fulfill, Bening’s words just aren’t believable, as if she’s simply going through the motions of a table read.

Much has been made about Bening’s physical transformation for the role and for the film’s unflinching portrayal of a woman in her sixties, a complicated and unlikeable woman no less. But even that conversation around the film feels condescending.

Foster as Stoll presents a more grounded and convincing portrayal, but admittedly much less is asked of her role in this film, and we aren’t given any sense of who Bonnie Stoll is outside of the narrow purview of her place in the orbit of Nyad’s training schedule.

While we’re not yet at a point where social contexts will allow for gender-blind casting across the board without it appearing somewhat fraught – and certainly not in the sports world where transphobia, including from Nyad herself (until recently), has run especially rampant – it doesn’t help the film that Bening’s co-star Rhys Ifans, who plays navigator John Bartlett, bears a striking resemblance to the real life Nyad, or at least infinitely more than Bening does. And I half-wondered what a Nyad movie might look like if they took the casting choices in a more unconventional direction.

Of course, perfect physical approximation is not the be-all and end-all in a biopic, but I also never felt like I was watching a unique character, just actor Annette Bening, in the same way that it’s hard to watch Dune: Part Two and see the character of the emperor, and not just Christopher Walken as Christopher Walken in a silvery robe.

Diana Nyad is a genuinely fascinating and elusive figure. As public as she has made her life it’s been intentionally hard to sort out fact from fiction and what shade of the truth would make the best story.

I would be eager to see another Nyad movie exploring this Frank Abagnale side of her personality in a messier, more madcap way, and not just an empty tale with the same emotional specificity as the motivational poster in Nyad’s weight room: “A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.” These platitudes are fine for one of her Ted Talks, but a feature film production should require its creators to rise to the occasion in shaping a movie as grand as Nyad’s own image of herself.

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