“Nyad” PEOPLE Review: Annette Bening Gives Her Boldest Performance Ever in Distance-Swimmer Biopic

She plays a real-life athlete who never failed to make waves in the Netflix film

<p>Kimberley French/Netflix</p> Annette Bening and costar Jodie Foster

Kimberley French/Netflix

Annette Bening and costar Jodie Foster

As played with unmatchable ferocity by Annette Bening in the new Netflix film Nyad, open-water swimmer Diana Nyad seems like a woman who could benefit from having an octopus teacher — a gentle aquatic guide to cheer her up and on as she makes repeated attempts (in her 60s!) to complete an epic swim from Cuba to Key West.

Instead, before she successfully swims 111 miles in nearly 53 hours in 2013, she’s stung and lacerated by jellyfish and man o’ wars, threatened by a shark and subjected to a violent storm at sea that may possibly be heaven’s way of instilling a little humility in her.

Because Diana Nyad is nothing if not defiantly proud.

She’s also self-centered, obsessive, inconsiderate, short-tempered, condescending and relentless. She’s Swimming Bull, or maybe The Terminator by way of The Little Mermaid. 

Her coach and friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster, terrific) is a softening, long-suffering influence, but not enough to keep you from suspecting that Nyad’s dream is an empty Herculean gesture. No guts, no glory, no pain, no gain — and at times, it seems, no sense.

The film, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (winners of a Best Documentary Oscar for the acclaimed Free Solo, about climber Alex Honnold) is willing to let you judge Nyad yourself, according to your own litmus test of what's inspirational versus what's delusional.

Related: Nyad PEOPLE Review: Annette Bening Gives Her Boldest Performance Ever in Distance-Swimmer Biopic

The important thing here is how the directors have captured the relentless, exhausting challenge facing Nyad. There are no prettified seascapes — you can almost feel the gravitational pull of the water as Nyad keeps pushing on, by day and by night, lifting her exhausted arms and letting them fall back into the current. If this were an Esther Williams musical out of the old days, the soundtrack would be playing Chopin's Funeral March.

The film also handles Nyad's traumatic childhood — she was sexually abused by her coach — with tactful, sensitive flashbacks, but it's not always clear how central these should be the adult drama of her great swim.

<p>Liz Parkinson/Netflix; D Dipasupil/FilmMagic</p> Bening, left, and the real Diana Nyad.

Liz Parkinson/Netflix; D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Bening, left, and the real Diana Nyad.

Bening doesn’t hold back. This is her boldest performance ever, and almost certain to get her an Oscar nomination — although she's such a disciplined actress you feel cheap letting words like "vehicle" or "awards bait" float plankton-like to the surface of your consciousness.

It’s not until the very end, as Nyad staggers out of the surf, looking wetter but not much more alive than a Walking Dead zombie, that the character and the performance show what might be called empathy.

Nyad still has a way to go before she’s as human as an octopus, but it’s a start.

The film is now available to stream on Netflix.

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