Jimmy Chin knows daredevils. The Mankato native and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, directed 2018's "Free Solo," the Oscar-winning documentary of rock climber Alex Honnold's ascent of El Capitan.
So it's natural that their first scripted feature would be "Nyad," a film about endurance athlete Diana Nyad's attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida while in her 60s. What's unexpected is that the best scenes are on dry land.
Nyad (Annette Bening) is just as cocky as the subjects of Chin and Vasarhelyi's past work. She's always confident that she's the most interesting person in the room. That's probably true — but it's annoying.
Her attempts to flirt with a guest at a birthday party are about as romantic as a hot dog eating contest.
The only person who can tolerate her self-assured swagger is Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), an amateur coach who sets aside her own ambitions to help her friend. It takes her longer than it should to push back.
"Enough with the me, me, me crap," Stoll finally snaps after her bestie treats her like nothing more than a kickboard.
The directors try pumping up the numerous attempts to make the 110-mile journey by using '60s classics (Neil Young, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel), flashbacks to an abusive childhood and footage of the actual Nyad. They aren't enough.
Even with jellyfish attacks, shark threats and thunderstorms, the swimming scenes just aren't visually compelling. The training sessions just don't have the rah-rah vibe of, say, Rocky Balboa, gearing up for one more crawl into the ring.
Fortunately, the film spends a lot of time out of the water, focusing on strategic arguments between Nyad and her team. The war of words from screenwriter Julia Cox are interpreted by a top-notch cast.
Rhys Ifans ("Notting Hill") as the navigator brings just the right amount of skeptical wariness on board. "Welcome to the Titanic," he says with zero warmth when a new crew member dares to join the support squad.
Foster is funnier and warmer than she ever was in "Maverick." After decades of playing leads in award-winning films like "The Accused" and "Silence of the Lambs," she's become one of our best character actors. Like Stoll, she's at ease playing second fiddle.
This is primarily a showcase for Bening. She sets aside her vanity, sporting a weathered face that looks like she scrubbed her cheeks with sandpaper. Her voice makes her sound like she gargles with seawater.
But her stubborn spirit wins us over, especially when she envisions her quest as a rallying cry for anyone old enough to remember "Wide World of Sports."
It may not be her best role (see "The Grifters" or "Being Julia") but it could be the one that finally wins her an Oscar.
The 65-year-old actor has been nominated four times in the past, so Academy voters could see this as an opportunity to give her something akin to a lifetime achievement award. Perseverance has its rewards. Just ask Nyad.
*** out 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language, sexual abuse and thematic material.
Where: In theaters through Thursday; lands Friday on Netflix.