A MILLION MILES AWAY Review: Migrant Farm Worker Goes to Space

Michael Pena, Rosa Salazar, and Garret Dillahunt star in the authentic true-life story, directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella, debuting on Prime Video.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, US (@peteramartin)
A MILLION MILES AWAY Review: Migrant Farm Worker Goes to Space

How do you get to space? Practice, practice, practice.

A Million Miles Away
The film launches globally on Prime Video on September 14, 2023, 8:00 pm EST.

Calling a movie 'nice' is commonly interpreted as a pejorative term. So, perhaps, 'pleasant' is the more accurate adjective to describe A Million Miles Away, which is an entirely nice pleasant (and entertaining, and, yes, inspiring) movie that properly lionizes its protagonist, Jose Moreno Hernandez, a migrant farm worker who became an astronaut.

Born in California, Jose traveled throughout California in the 1960s with his family as they picked fruits and vegetables, moving with every season. In school, Jose exhibited a propensity for math and science, despite his limitations with the English language. His imagination was sparked when the Moon landing in 1969 caught his family's attention.

For Jose, however, it gave him a goal in life: to become an astronaut.

It sounded like an impossible dream to everyone, especially his practical-minded father, but for Jose, it was intensely personal, tied up in his desire to do something more with his life than to grow old, picking fruits and vegetables for other people. His keen intelligence and diligent drive moved him to attend university and graduate to a job as an engineer at Livermore Laboratory in California.

Michael Pena inhabits José as a shy, modest young man who eventually begins to assert himself -- no easy thing as a Mexican-American in the widely-discriminatory United States in the 1980s, aka The Ronald Reagan Years -- and becomes a valued employee at the Livermore Laboratory, even as he and his wife, Adela (Rosario Sanchez, Alita: Battle Angel), marry and begin raising a family with multiple children.

All the while, though, Jose harbors his dream of becoming an astronaut, secretly applying to NASA year after year. In time, Adela becomes aware of his secret applications, and after talking it over, decides to become even more supportive as Jose works to expand his resume by taking on more and more training in pursuit of his dream.

You don't need to know the true story to anticipate how the story will be told, and, indeed, A Million Miles Away follows the expected beats in a cinematic true-story hagiography. Yet, as easy as it is to identify the inevitable speed bumps that arise, the ride remains entirely pleasant, due in large measure to its star.

In nearly 100 films and television shows, Michael Pena has built a career marked by his authenticity. My personal favorites include End of Watch, 2012, and War on Everyone, 2016, but, truly, anytime he shows up in a movie, in any role, he becomes one to watch.

In this movie, his motivations are entirely internal. His character cannot fully explain why his dream is eating him up inside, why it motivates him, and what he hopes to achieve. He knows only that he needs to go to space, and every other thing in his life -- his family, his career, his friends -- must remain subordinate until he can live his dream.

To this end, Pena downplays his usual smiling humor, as well as his always available dark intensity, instead creating in Jose a person who has always been overcome by forces bigger than he is, yet remains determined to pursue his (perhaps) unreachable goal. It's a beautiful performance, not at all showy, and easy to overlook in the greater drama of the movie and the time in which it is set.

Rosa Salazar provides wonderful support, as does Garret Dillahunt, who turns in his usual, reliably believable work later in the picture, along with ace performances by Julio Cesar Cedillo and Veronica Falcon.

Alejandra Marquez Abella directed, and wrote the screenplay with Hernan Jimenez and Bettina Gilois, based on a book by Jose Moreno Hernandez. If the film can't quite achieve escape velocity from the limitations of an authorized biography, the story retains its inevitably inspiring nature.

As a Mexican/Irish-American person myself, I wanted to stand up and applaud the migrant farm worker who became an astronaut.

Personal postscript: I must admit that I was disappointed to not hear "A Million Miles Away" by The Plimsouls, which I first heard in 1983, as featured in Valley Girl. The song has remained one of my favorite songs of all time, which is why I link to the music video (below the movie's trailer) for your viewing and listening pleasure.

A Million Miles Away

  • Alejandra Márquez Abella
  • Bettina Gilois
  • Hernán Jiménez
  • Alejandra Márquez Abella
  • Michael Peña
  • Rosa Salazar
  • Garret Dillahunt
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Garret DillahuntJose HernandezMichael PenaNASAPrime VideoRosa SalazarAlejandra Márquez AbellaBettina GiloisHernán JiménezMichael PeñaDramaSci-Fi

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