Saturday 6 April 2019

Movie Review: The Hummingbird Project (2018)

A business drama, The Hummingbird Project tackles a potentially dry subject with some verve, despite never quite engaging at the human level.

In New York City, stock trader Vince Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) works at the firm run by Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). His socially awkward but technically brilliant cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) is Eva's technology guru, part of the team continuously trying to improve transaction speed to gain millisecond advantages. Vince finds a backer to finance his dream of building the fastest fibre optic line from Kansas to New Jersey. Access to the line can then be sold to traders, generating millions in profits.

Vince and Anton quit their jobs, enraging Eva, and team up with construction expert Mark Vega (Michael Mando). Building in a straight line will require negotiating with numerous property owners, crossing rivers and swamps, and the small matter of drilling through the Appalachian Mountains. Vince will also have to deal with unwelcome health news and Eva's determined efforts to torpedo the project, while Anton struggles to make his software as efficient as possible.

The Michael Lewis non-fiction book Flash Boys (2014) highlighted the dangers and eccentricities of the high speed stock trading world, and how the race to gain milliseconds in transaction speeds drives the madcap construction of dedicated fibre optic lines across the country. It's an arcane subject at best, so credit to Canadian writer and director Kim Nguyen for conceiving a fictional movie (not based on the book) tackling the same subject matter.

The Hummingbird Project tries to create human subjects worth caring about, and Nguyen colours in just enough personality to help move the action along. Vince and Anton Zaleski are sons of Eastern European immigrants living the dream and chasing more, Vince the always persuasive dealmaker while Anton is the prototypical dour coder. Less successful is Eva as the one-dimensional antagonist, sketched in as a cartoonish villain.

The script's real investment is out in the field, where the idea of building a communications conduit in an absolute straight line takes shape. The sheer audacity of such a project is at the heart of the film, and Nguyen provides a taste of the challenges to be overcome, from negotiating with individual landowners to flying in drilling equipment by gigantic helicopter to the base of the Appalachians, where there are no roads.

Of course almost everything that can go wrong does, Vince's dream threatened by serious personal challenges and obstacles as mundane as an obstinate Amish community, while on the sidelines Eva tries every trick to halt the line in its tracks.

Although the acting performances are secondary, Alexander Skarsgård is a pleasant surprise, entirely losing his Tarzan features and transforming into a bald, haunched and entirely pessimistic anti-social tech geek.

The Hummingbird Project is a version of the American Dream where millions are sunk in pursuit of an imperceptible advantage for dubious purposes, and making a quick buck is defined literally.

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