Film review: The Hummingbird Project
Finance against physical and social limits
Kim Nguyen's 2018 film The Hummingbird Project, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, and Michael Mando, sets a human drama around finance's pursuit of speed through technology. I missed the movie when it came out, but finally got around to it recently. Let me stop short of rendering artistic judgement, and say only that the film deserves a place alongside The Big Short, Margin Call and It's a Wonderful Life in the list of watchable movies with an overt role for finance.
Cousins Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton Zaleski (Skarsgård) set out to build an almost perfectly straight fiber-optic connection between Kansas City and New York City. By doing so, they hope to be able to send information between the two locations on a 16 millisecond round trip—about as much time as the flap of a hummingbird's wings. To dedicate their energy to the project, Vincent and Anton choose to leave the employ of financier Eva Torres (Hayek), who tries to outrun them using a different technology. Vincent and Anton, together with Mark Vega (Mando), have to navigate the many technical, social and personal complexities that arise as the project unfolds.
All forward motion for the film's plot comes from the possibility of shaving a millisecond off of the round-trip communication time between Kansas City and New York. Whoever can achieve that is promised a vast fortune, whether it turns out to be the Zaleskis or their former boss and now ruthless competitor Torres. Though the movie is fictional, this financial premise is of course true to life: the idea is to accept orders for securities in Kansas City, race to New York to acquire them, and race back to Kansas City to deliver them. Whoever can send messages the fastest wins, because they can earn the spread between what they pay in New York and what they charge in Kansas City. It is, moreover, a winner-takes-all competition, because the fastest one can always undercut everyone else, by offering a better price with no risk.
To dig the tunnel for their fiber, the Zaleskis use a variety of horizontal-drilling equipment, which puts them in increasingly dicey logistical, environmental and interpersonal circumstances, in which context we learn something about the characters' motivations and histories. The drilling, to my mind, illustrates the resolute materiality of the project’s proposition, while at the same time the Zaleski's obligation to negotiate land access rights across the entire length of the tunnel, and the explanations this requires, mocks with cutting irony just how ridiculous and abstract finance can be.
The Hummingbird Project is about financial innovation at the limits of physics. Along the shortest path over the planet's surface, Kansas City, MO and New York City are separated by a distance of some 5.8 light-milliseconds, so there is a real lower bound to the time required. Vincent and Anton eventually must confront, as we all must, the tension between humanity's drive to overcome barriers on the one hand, and the flimsy meaninglessness of financial riches on the other.
Despite my interest in the film's engagement with the world of finance, I confess that in the end, I struggled to find much sympathy for any of the film's characters. Vincent's single-minded obsession with the project never feels quite motivated; nor does Eva's obsession with winning. Anton at least is a likably kooky genius. But if what he really wants from life is to catch frogs with his kids and write code, then what is he doing in finance at all? I preferred Mark, who is affably pragmatic, and the project's link to reality when things finally go off the rails.
Still, The Hummingbird Project does succeed in capturing something important about the excesses of our moment in financial history—the lengths to which financial logic can be carried, and the costs. As humanity brings technology closer toward physical constraints, so we are pushed to emotional extremes. For those of us who think about finance every day, such truth might be seen most easily through a storyteller's lens.