Dr. José Hernández, born in August 1962 in French Camp, California, is not the first Hispanic astronaut (that title belongs to Chang Diaz with mission STS-61C), but he is the first astronaut whose origins begin with migrant farming, both for himself and his family. His story was told in his 2012 book Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut, written by himself, and, now, adapted by director/co-writer Alejandra Márquez Abella (Northern Skies Over Empty Space) and writers Bettina Gilois (Glory Road) and Hernán Jiménez (Avería de la conciencia) in the Amazon Studios release A Million Miles Away. There’s no denying the poignancy of Hernández’s story, especially in a culture right now which seems to spit in the face of any contribution made to the U.S. by an immigrant or non-European-based individual. However, with the exception of a few moments in which the film dares to be authentic and feature stirring performances from its two leads, it ends up falling in line with most every other biopic in terms of style and presentation.
As a boy, José Hernández (Michael Peña) longed to travel to space. He couldn’t articulate why, but he knew he wanted to go. With guidance from his father, Salvador (Julio César Cedillo), José worked on a four-part plan to help him devise a way to get into NASA. Despite rejection after rejection, year after year, José refused to give up, pushed onward by his wife, Adela (Rosa Salazar), and his cousin, Beto (Bobby Soto), it would take decades, but his dream would be fulfilled.
A Million Miles Away operates with three combined motifs: the Monarch butterfly, Salvador’s plan, and a blue metallic powder that makes up the title cards for segments of the film. In the film, Salvador eases the pain of leaving his extended-family, with wife and children in tow, to start the cycle of picking fruits throughout California by discussing the Monarch butterfly and the journey thousands of miles long it goes on each year. This becomes representative of José, incorporated into his first car and appearing later as a signifier of just how far he’s come. Its presence in a scene brings both José and the audience back to an emotional place, reminding us of when he was a boy and the possibilities we’re capable of when we dedicate ourselves to something. One might even call it something spiritual, for even if the film itself doesn’t delve into José’s faith, the Monarch comes to represent something larger to him, the avatar for what could be if he could only defy gravity himself. It’s a lovely sentiment and one which is used in small doses to excellent effect.
The combination of Salvador’s plan and the metallic powder are a mix of things that are easily identifiable as relevant and not. Rather than continually identifying the time period we’re in, Abella primarily uses the four-part plan as title cards in order to segment the story. Each title card, whether of the plan or not, is comprised of the metallic powder. Using the plan is smart as it anchors José’s story within a specific framework of dedication and focus, something which he needed in order to have a chance at success given the time period he grew up in (he may have been old enough to watch the landing on the moon, but he’s also old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement and more) when one of the biggest things going against him was not being of European descent. They also create a direct connection between José and his father, whom the script and performances convey a sense of a tight bond, as well as a desire by José to live up to his parents’ sacrifices. As smart as that is, the use of the metallic powder is a bit of a question mark as the only instance in the film such a material is seen is on the car José is driving when Peña is introduced as José. The scene itself is beautifully executed, a single-shot in which time jumps merely by moving young José out of the camera and older José in. This kind of camerawork and direction implies a clever and inventive mind from Abella, something which really only shows up one other time in a smartly executed montage sequence that takes place entirely within the structure of a conversation between José and Adela. If the powder is meant to tie to the car, a symbol of José’s culture and community, something that he was proud of until he felt he had to assimilate into American (read: white) work standards, it feels like a leap, but it’s the only direct connection that seems plausible.
These little things speak to a specific voice for A Million Miles Away, especially as the aforementioned intro to Peña includes a cleverly executed title card for the film as a whole. There’s incredible detail in so many little things that convey who José is and the fictional world created to replicate the lived experience. The downside is that so much of everything else is as-expected of a biography that, if not for the performances from Peña and Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel; Undone), one might easily find the story interesting but otherwise forgettable. Peña is always a fascinating actor to watch, his facial expressiveness and physicality able to communicate a constant sense of humanity and realism whether he’s an ex-con taking part in a heist (Ant-Man) or a Fed trying to catch a killer (Shooter). Here, Peña is given an opportunity to take center stage and, if nothing else, his charm and talent make one lean-in and make rooting for José easy. Playing José’s wife and partner, Salazar’s role could’ve been the typical small-though-not-a-footnote character we’ve seen in other films, yet Salazar makes Adela larger due to the actor’s on-screen presence. She convincingly grants this version of Adela agency, even as she gives up on her own dreams to encourage José’s. The chemistry between the two actors and their performances capture a wonderful romance and the kind of marriage that succeeds only when each one is given space to exist without becoming *only* a parent or *only* a spouse, sacrificing themselves and their identity in order for someone else to achieve. Even though A Million Miles Away includes such cast members as Soto (Flamin’ Hot), Cedillo (Sicario), Sarayu Blue (Happiest Season), and Garret Dillahunt (Looper), this film is not an ensemble piece: it belongs to Peña and Salazar.
Before the film begins, we know the ending, and that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. A good biography film is still effective whether or not you know where it leads. Dr. Hernández’s story is a remarkable one and being on a platform like Prime Video will afford it suitable reach. But much like José is depicted as struggling to find himself within two worlds as he strives for his dream, so does A Million Miles Away, struggling to be an engaging, thoughtful, emotional, and playful film when it leans into José as a person and then trying to hit specific critical narrative beats for a biopic resulting in all that originality disappearing.
Available on Prime Video September 14th, 2023 at 8:00p ET.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.