Okay, sometimes films are like acting classes. Imagine you’ve sat on a folding chair and watched a small group of your fellow acting students just crush dialogue and acting choices in class for three weeks straight. But you’ve never gotten the chance to do a scene with them… Until your ambitious and socially conscious acting teacher suggests the whole class workshops his passion project about a fairly obscure high-frequency trading technology race. Naturally, you’re really excited to flex your acting muscles with a group of actors you’ve admired from afar. The whole class nails every scene of the teacher’s baggy and thinly sketched first draft of his script – what a great learning experience for everybody involved… Until your overly zealous acting teacher posts the unedited dress rehearsal on YouTube. And a tidal wave of pride and embarrassment hits you square on the chin.
Yes, it’s a curious observation. But it’s an observation that slowly comes into focus as we meet Vincent Zaleski (Jessie Eisenberg) sitting on a bench, persuading a silver-haired tycoon that his high speed fibre-optic cable system connecting the Kansas and New York stock exchanges together is an investment opportunity of a lifetime. Oddly, Vincent seals the billion dollar deal with an earnest anecdote about a long ago plumbing accident where he was hit on the head by a hundred pound waste pipe. Yes, life imitates art, but perhaps not the way writer and director Kim Nguyen had intended as The Humming Bird Project (2018) unspools onscreen much like a real-life fibre-optic cable line being laid under mountain ranges, swamps and the occasional back-garden – it’s often a long and arduous undertaking.
In the modern glass and steel buildings of Wall Street a new financial arms race is being spearheaded by FinTech titan Ava Torres (Salma Hayek), who headhunts and employs the brightest scientific minds on the planet to make her exponentially richer by the millisecond on the stock market. The huckster-ish Vincent and his mega-brained cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) acrimoniously jump ship to compete directly against Ava in a misguided attempt to build their own high-frequency trading empire and fill their pockets till they burst. Tellingly, Vincent smooth talks cable engineer Mike Vega (Michael Mando) into joining their mammoth engineering endeavour by pitching it as a David vs Goliath fight and Mike simply asks “Are we David…?”.
It is a weighty question Nguyen’s script sees as a relative one depending on who Vincent and Anton are standing in front of – the sexy and snarling Torres or a hard-faced Amish farmer. But either way they don’t come away looking particularly noble in their pursuit to bring prosperity or damnation to the ever insatiable global financial market place. Thankfully, Nguyen’s assured cinematic eye brings a much needed splash of flare and scale to the nitty-gritty of laying cable in the backwaters of rural America, which climaxes with a huge Russian helicopter thundering down from the heavens with a drill the size of a double-decker bus.
What makes a financial disaster film work like The Big Short (2015) or Margin Call (2011) isn’t their obsession with money. No, it’s their obsession with people. Yes, professional and personal ruin are the rubrics the genre is built on, and yet Vincent and Anton’s demise under mountains of debt and impossible to write computer code feels ponderous as they dart from presidential hotel suites to boardrooms and back again. And a baffling scene in the final third of the film where Vincent walks into a seedy-ish massage parlour and gets a regular massage and cries his brains out feels very important and meaningless at the same time…
But it is no small feat Nguyen marshalled together such a well-regarded cast and they clearly relished the opportunity to pour on the acting externals – especially Skarsgård’s timid and hulking Anton, he’s built like a WWE wrestler with the personality of a scientific calculator. Ultimately, there’s an air of Nguyen being an acting teacher impresario struggling to get a grip of his own original material as he directs a troop of accomplished actors, who are pretty much happy doing their own thing. The Humming Bird Project might have worked better as a dramatic television series like Halt and Catch Fire (2014) and who knows maybe it still might in the era of streaming who needs cable anyway.