Inspired by the real-life story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández, A Million Miles Away follows him on a decades-long journey, from a rural village in Michoacán, Mexico, to more than 200 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station. With the support of his family, José’s drive & determination culminates in the opportunity to achieve his seemingly impossible goal.
As an astronaut, to get to infinity you must be willing to get beyond the earth. That’s the dream, the grit that A Million Miles Away inspired in me to keep watching this true life drama about the first migrant worker to become an astronaut, Jose Hernandez (Michael Peña). I’m a sucker for American Dream fulfilled stories, especially those with long odds of success. It’s a winning combination for me, even when it is delivered with clunky Mexican cultural cliches and the typical one teacher who encouraged it all trope.
When A Million Miles Away decides to stop wandering and take root, grounds itself, family and all, in Hernandez’s space quest, I was wholeheartedly along for the trip. The details of how such a poor family could afford to provide the education to foster Hernandez’s quest are not really elucidated. It just gives Hernandez the start and lets his grit, imagination and talent take care of the rest. The family barely struggles, his wife (Rosa Salazar) just a little, him a lot to overcome the deficiencies he must learn and master to achieve just getting in the door, finally achieving success on the twelfth reapplication to NASA.
I’ve seen it all before, even the rigorous training scenes, but never done with such wide-eyed optimism and determination. The gush just won me over despite knowing better. It reminded me why I never get tired of Buzz Lightyear’s bravado, but annoyed with Woody’s annoying droning. It made me want to read Hernandez’s autobiography, Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut,
Miles Away intersperses historical footage of migrant workers and spacecraft launches. The cinematography seems to exist at the edge of where dream flight and actual space flight almost meet. When they do, at the end, it’s transcendent and glorious-. a star child shine.
The family scenes revolve around the give and take, the sacrifices they all made for Jose, the love and admiration for what he wants to achieve and will achieve. There’s a tinge of the migrant reality in the relationship between Jose and his brother, Beto (Bobby Soto), who became a farm worker like his parents. In one scene, Beto says: “I just think it’s great that I get to be so freaking proud and have no idea what you’re talking about, cousin.” It’s a line that aptly distills what many upwardly mobile immigrants face.
The scenes where astronaut and family clash and meet are the most impressive: where the child Jose imagines a corncob as spaceship, the adult Hernandez washing dishes in his astronaut uniform, him driving to work blasting ranchera music on the radio. I found those scenes heartwarming and moving.
A Million Miles Away is pretty single minded in depicting the American dream narrative. There are scenes where Jose glance at his hands, notices the callouses, and is reminded of the hands of those who supported him through their hard labor in the field. His father’s five part recipe for success frames and inter titles each achievement and the film.
Looking into issues of assimilation, immigration, gender roles, family conflict would have made A Million Miles Away a deeper film, and maybe a more contemporary story. But, those are issues for other stories about migrants. This is a real folk tale about one who dreams of soaring to the stars and does.
A Million Miles Away gets a 3.5 out of 5 or a B+. It’s streaming on Amazon prime.
Alejandra Marquez Abella
Reaching for the Stars
- Mark Ciardi
- Campbell McInnes
- September 15, 2023