A financial thriller backloaded with existential weight that seems culled from an entirely different film.
The Hummingbird Project is the first in what might be a burgeoning film genre: the high-frequency trade thriller. In HFT, teeny tiny shares are bought and sold in the blink of an eye by a complex series of algorithms, resulting in micro-transactional profits that start out infinitesimal but accumulate to millions over time, a financial model that’s so part and parcel with society’s insistence on instant gratification that it verges on parody. Appropriately enough, The Hummingbird Project is something of a satire. The titular project – a four-inch wide tunnel of fiber optic cables that connects an HRT data center in New Jersey to an exchange in Kansas City – is testament to that, giving a financial firm the advantage of out-trading the competition by a whole millisecond, about the same amount of time that a hummingbird takes to flap its wings. Never mind the logistical nightmare and potential ecological fallout that comes with digging a hole across a large swath of the country, a millisecond may as well be an eternity when it comes to making money in the hyper-capitalistic 21st century.
At least that’s according to Vinny Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg), the man with the plan. Here, Eisenberg is back in Zuckerberg mode as the cocky motivating force behind a huge technological undertaking, with an against-type Alexander Skarsgård playing his introverted code-writing cousin, Anton. Rounding out the group is engineer Mark Vega (Michael Mando), the one tasked with actually compiling the physical resources to bring this idea to fruition. Spoiler: It’s basically impossible, but wild and potentially dangerous ambition informs every aspect of the film’s narrative. That said, director Kim Nguyen never tells us exactly how to feel about the characters or their mission, giving space to the capable performers to define a set of individual character traits. Vinny, perhaps because of Eisenberg’s familiarity with this particular personality type, is the easiest to tamp down. We recoil as he berates his colleagues and the hapless landowners blocking his path, and watch as he forsakes everything in his life for the difference of one millisecond. The irony that so much is riding on so little resonates as the prospect of actually fulfilling the project becomes more unlikely and more outlandish.
With the film’s focus on byzantine financial systems and computer technology is better understood intellectually than it is visually, the film toys with generic convention to give things a little more zest. It sometimes resembles the “based on true events” cine-journalism of The Big Short and Moneyball, but Nguyen seems to aim for a less frenzied, more polished version of The Wolf of Wall Street, evinced in the interlocking character set pieces and seriocomic tone. A better point of comparison might actually be the semi-recent and mostly forgotten Ramin Bahrani film 99 Homes, which takes a similar approach to the housing market collapse and sort of feels like a dialed-back Michael Mann movie. What ultimately emerges is a likably off-kilter procedural with the grace notes of financial thriller, the characters shaped less like aggressive techo-capitalists and more like a group of digital-era hustlers: Vinny as the smoother talker; Anton as the brains; Mark as the muscle. That each character proves emotionally ill-equipped to properly tackle the task at hand – stymied by state bureaucracy, a particularly resistant clan of Amish farmers and Anton’s deficient code – occasionally feels like poor storytelling, but there’s also a sense that Nguyen is letting us in on the joke.
Indeed, as these and other complications build, the director displays a flair for farce that suits his thriller plot machinations, most notably in the diligent pacing. The film is utterly consumed by our growing fixation on speed, enough that the myriad plot digressions and interludes begin to feel like micro-transactions themselves, arriving quickly and ending with a fleeting sense of resolution. The moment-to-moment effect can be sort of annoying and not the least bit disorienting, but the film keeps up with its own peculiar rhythms, and some of the weirder stretches, like when Vinny’s former boss, Eva (Salma Hayek, over-acting and loving every second of it), installs a trail of microwave towers to thwart his precious cable, are genuinely amusing. The third act, however, pivots on a character’s abrupt cancer diagnosis and ushers in a stoic attitude that divorces the film from its idiosyncrasies, forcing it down the path of moral parable. If directing is largely an exercise in balancing tones, Nguyen backloads The Hummingbird Project with an existential weight that seems culled from an entirely different film, an attempt at narrative sleight of hand he doesn’t quite pull off. A longer runtime might have helped, but at 110 minutes, The Hummingbird Project, like the cable in question, is already plenty long.
As the story’s key figure, Vinny is defined by his potentially catastrophic ambition, and his actions create cycles of suffering for those around him. If the character sees himself as David among Goliaths, Nguyen takes measures to illustrate how he’s simply another Goliath trying to outman competing Goliaths. As we continue to learn more about scheming one-percenters and the way they cheat their way through virtually all aspects of public life, perspective grants us the ability to recognize Vinny and his cohorts as the type of people who contributed to the economic crash of ’08, even if they don’t all belong to the same tax bracket. So ambition – in the uniquely American sense – appears disastrous and inherently self-serving, regardless of economic status; as Vinny attempts to pave an impossible path through the Appalachian mountains, he even starts to resemble a Bible Belt Fitzcarraldo. The Hummingbird Project seems to hope for an end to this particular brand of greed, but as for what’s actually at the end of the line, both the figurative one we’re all on and the literal one Vinny is trying to burrow across the country, the answer isn’t as abstract as mere Quixotic impulse. Nguyen instead envisions the end as coming at the expense of the physical ties that bind us – to our land, our space, and indeed, our time.