A MILLION MILES AWAY – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Now that most schools are back in session, who’s up for a history lesson? Okay, we had one a few weeks ago with the, still in theatres, OPPENHEIMER. And though it’s really well done, to be honest, it’s kind of a “downer” what with all the “atomic bomb stuff”. This new flick also deals with science, but it concerns the exploration of space, much like the surprise “crowd-pleaser” of 2016, HIDDEN FIGURES. Like that film, it concerns one member, rather than the mathematics trio, of a minority that is usually not the focus of these docudramas. Oh, and rather than the swinging sixties this story is much more recent, capping off in 2009. It’s really the story of a dreamer, a man who dares to imagine leaving Earth to travel A MILLION MILES AWAY.

It is the late 1960s when we meet the Hernandez family, who are leaving lots of friends, They’re loading up their sputtering car and heading to another job at another California locale. Such is the transient life of farmworkers. Eight-year-old Jose somehow excels in school, despite rising before dawn to join his parents and siblings in the fields. One of his teachers, the sympathetic Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec), notices his skills and pleads with his parents to let him finish the year in Stockton, to no avail. Despite the long working hours, Jose becomes obsessed with the Apollo 11 moon landing. His dream of reaching for the stars sticks with him through his school years and into his first “white collar” job as an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. oh, but his bosses underestimate him and the receptionist thinks that he’s the new janitor. This just makes Jose (Michael Pena) more determined. Each year he sends off an application to NASA and gets a curt rejection reply. Luckily, he’s more successful with his romance with a young woman at a used car lot, who had also worked in the fields, Adela (Rosa Salazar). But this is equally challenging thanks to her stern father and scary cousins, who don’t want her to “date”. Somehow the duo makes it to the altar and begins a family. After he begrudgingly shares his space dreams with her, she encourages him to work toward his goal. Jose volunteers for a big multi-nation project in Russia, making him now “tri-lingual”. Upon his return he takes flying and scuba diving lessons. With the next application, Jose delivers his form in person at the Johnson Space Center and hands it to Commander Frederick Sturckow (Garret Dillahunt). And it works, he’s in. Thus begins many months of tense and arduous training, challenging not only himself but also putting a considerable strain on his ever-expanding family.

Mind you, I was one of the few postive reviewers of the last Ant-Man flick, but I’ll admit that I sorely missed Mr. Pena as Scott’s motor-mouthed sidekick. I’m so glad he’s now carrying this story squarely on his more-than-capable shoulders. Certainly, Jose is an inspirational hero, but Pena gives him real humanity. Yes, we’re rooting for Jose as his peers roll their eyes, and we cheer when he’s later elevated to their supervisor. But then we see how his ambitions make his personal life take a “back seat”. Still, his hesitant romance is charming and his interactions with his folks and relatives have a real warmth. Oh, adding greatly to those romantic scenes is the chemistry with the engaging Ms. Salazar, almost making us forget her turn as the “battle angel” Alita. Her smile lights up the screen, even beneath the retro 90s hairstyles (layered, feathered, and frosted tips). And she’s more than a doting adoring cheerleader. In a pivotal scene, she conveys her anger and disappointment upon discovering her hubby’s stash of NASA rejections. Adela wants to be Jose’s partner in every sense while chiding him for his disinterest in her own culinary dreams. Dillahunt also dishes out some “tough love” as Jose’s stern taskmaster, knowing just how to deliver the right type of “nudge”. Kudos to Veronica Falcon and Julio Cesar Cedillo as Jose’s hardworking, nurturing parents who shine in the early sequences with the talented young Juan Pablo Monterrubio playing the daydreaming stargazing grade-school-aged Jose.

Director and co-writer (with Bettina Gilois and Hernan Jimenez) Alejandra Marquez Abella has crafted an entertaining biopic that tugs on the heartstrings without being precious or cloying and extolls the virtues of setting a goal and working to achieve it. We can almost feel the muscle aches and heat exhaustion in those scenes in the near-endless fields (lots of bandages on little fingers) while also making us feel as though we’re right next to Jose in the often frightening astronaut tests (how long can he hold his breathe wearing that heavy spacesuit). The decades are recreated well from the autos to the fashions (and those “rabbit-eared” TVs). The jump from grade school to lab engineer feels like a brisk jump, but perhaps it can be elaborated on in a second film (Jose’s foray into politics a decade ago would make for a great “part two”). The glories of space travel are there, but the dangers aren’t pushed aside. My only major problem with the film is that it’s not in theatres where this true tale of determination could make the most impact. So, if you can get access to this inspiring story, A MILLION MILES AWAY is more than worth the effort (especially for families).

3 Out of 4

A MILLION MILES AWAY streams exclusively on Amazon Prime beginning on Friday, September 15, 2023

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.