Benjamin Franklin’s well-worn adage that time is money has led us, some centuries later, to the business of high-frequency trading, or HFT. Shares are bought and sold by algorithms in the blink of an eye for fractional profits that accumulate into millions—a mind-boggling business whose theoretical limits are the laws of physics that Franklin’s own Enlightenment era helped define. Human folly, on the other hand, is limitless, and the protagonist of The Hummingbird Project, Vinny Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg), has come up with a whopper of a plan: a 4-inch-wide, 1,000-mile long tunnel of fiber optic cable that will go from an exchange in Kansas City to a data center in New Jersey in a straight line (that is, through the Appalachians), giving an HFT firm a deadly advantage to out-trade the competition. That advantage? About one millisecond.
That so much might be riding on so little is a critical irony that The Hummingbird Project recognizes but ultimately fumbles. Vinny’s low-latency line will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build; in a best-case scenario, it will be obsolete in a few years. (In fact, it already is; most of the film is set in 2012.) Nonetheless, he manages to secure a deep-pocketed investor to finance the entire project by the end of the opening scene. Just as crucially, he enlists the help of his brainiac cousin, Anton (Alexander Skarsgård); soon, they’re joined by Mark Vega (Michael Mando), an experienced engineer who accepts their ambitious pitch from across the table of a less-than-ritzy Chinese restaurant. Together, they make an unlikely trio: Vinny the hustler, Anton the genius, and Mark the grounding presence.
With seemingly unlimited resources, they now have their work cut out for them. All they have to do is coordinate dozens of crews to lay a thousand miles of fiber optic cable under residential neighborhoods, national parks, mountains, and Amish farms, in secret and on a short timetable, while avoiding industrial espionage and legal threats from Vinny and Anton’s saber-rattling former boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek, in a performance that borders on camp). Never mind that the Zaleski cousins haven’t completely worked the math; they might not even be able to deliver that promised millisecond.
Visualizing modern financial systems and computer networks is no easy task. On paper, the plot brings to mind adaptations of Michael Lewis bestsellers like Moneyball and The Big Short. (Less so The Blind Side.) That’s no accident: Writer-director Kim Nguyen, who is best known for the Oscar-nominated War Witch, seems to have taken loose inspiration from a similar project covered in Lewis’ HFT exposé Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. But faced with subject matter that involves huge distances, nearly immaterial quantities of time, and a lot of computer science and finance-ese, Nguyen largely retreats into the cozy, inconspicuous conventions of drama.
Because Vinny and Anton spends most of the movie apart (due, in part, to the latter’s extreme fear of flying), the better parts of The Hummingbird Project play like a dual profile of Quixotic obsession, in which the the spiraling costs and equipment problems of the fiber-optic line suggest increasingly literal readings of “pipe dream” and “tunnel vision.” On the one hand, there’s Anton—played by Skarsgård through glasses, a baldpate, and an exaggerated slouch—holed up in a hotel suite, rarely changing out of his bathrobe as he scrunches his brow over some critical lines of code. On the other, there’s Vinny—the latest in a long line of pushy, neurotic assholes essayed by Eisenberg—sweating as he tries to get the project to the finish line.
Not that Nguyen has the ambitions or obsessions to match his characters. Vinny’s insistence on tunneling through the Appalachians has a touch of Fitzcarraldo, but a cancer diagnosis (delivered by a cut from a fiber optic line to a doctor’s endoscope) eventually tugs the film in the direction of sentimentality and soulful stares—the old clichés about stopping to smell the roses and the journey being the destination. (For those keeping track, this is the second Alexander Skarsgård project to use the Amish as a cheap counterpoint to technological alienation, after the execrable Mute.) Whether it’s a dizzying montage or a drop of visionary madness, a little mania might have gone a long way.