We never forget certain things, like when Kennedy was shot, towers went down, and each of the NASA Space shuttles exploded. Events such as these stay in our collective memories, and we pass those memories on to our children. A Million Miles Away doesn’t follow one of these ill-fated events; rather, it reminds us of the incredible historical successes we’ve witnessed. Director Alejandra Márquez Abella highlights the successful 2009 mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery and focuses on a migrant worker, Jose Hernandez, played by Michael Peña, who acted as the shuttle’s first mission specialist.
Even when traveling with his family to work the fields of California, the young Jose longed to learn more about the stars and dreamed of being an astronaut. A caring teacher, Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec), encourages Jose to reach for those stars. Jose’s father (Julio Cesar Cedillo) gives up the goal of buying a home in Michoacan, Mexico, to keep his children in school. Jose excels and becomes an engineer and later earns his master’s degree. And he applies over and over and over again to NASA. With his wife’s (Rosa Salazar) encouragement and many family sacrifices, Jose puts in hours of physical exercise, learns to SCUBA, and logs hundreds of flight hours to reach his goal. After eleven rejections, he delivered his twelfth application to the NASA space program and was finally accepted.
Peña shines, and the fierce ensemble cast supports Peña like Jose’s family seems to have supported him. The delightfully buoyant Peña carries us easily through the stages and challenges of Hernandez’s life – with the perfect blend of childlike exuberance and hardcore determination. Salazar and Peña have wonderful chemistry scene after scene, and we feel the couple’s emotional, financial, and personal struggles. Watching Hernandez’s life from a boy to decades later as an astronaut never loses momentum. We gladly watch him every step of the way, and several scenes brought this typically unflappable critic to tears.
Márquez Abella doesn’t hurry to tell Jose’s story, and more importantly, she, along with cowriters Alejandra Márquez Abella, Bettina Gilois, and Hernán Jiménez, creates a rich and engaging storyline. Of course, Hernandez’s life truly is an interesting and inspiring tale. I feel inclined to point out, that A Million Miles Away frustratingly plays it a tad safe in some aspects, but in the end, the film makes us feel good and that’s important. I am putting five stars up top. The soft-handed approach is forgivable.