In the heart of America, a young boy, son of hardworking Mexican migrant farmers, sits glued to a frail TV set, watching the historic Apollo 13 moon landing. Fast forward a few decades, and this persistent soul submits his application to NASA’s astronaut program, not once or twice, but a staggering 11 times, only to face disappointment. That same tenacious spirit eventually brings him to the hallowed grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, where he gears up for the dream of touching the stars.
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“A Million Miles Away”, the latest Amazon cinematic tribute, paints a poignant portrait of Hernández’s life. Masterfully portrayed by Michael Peña, Hernández’s evolution from a wandering student to a groundbreaking electrical engineer and ultimately, a dweller of the cosmos, is nothing short of inspiring. He etches history by being the very first individual from a migrant farmworking background to grace the vastness of space. The film masterfully captures the undying spirit of space exploration, the magnetism of dreams that defy gravity, and the profound sacrifices in the name of both science and national pride. With a narrative spine inspired by the “ingredients to success” as imparted by his father, this biopic also pays tribute to Hernández’s legacy as a beacon of inspiration for countless others.
In the latest cinematic release, director Alejandra Márquez Abella crafts a mesmerizing tale that could have easily fallen into the trap of cliché sentimentality. However, under her guidance, the story is infused with charisma, painting an invigorating picture of determination, unity, and the essence of the American Dream. This narrative, intricately woven by Abella and screenwriters Bettina Gilois and Hernán Jiménez, brings to life the journey of a Mexican American family, focusing on their experiences without being heavy-handed in its message.
The story unfolds at a lively tempo, tracing the early years of young José as he aids his parents, Salvador (portrayed by Julio César Cedillo) and Julia (brought to life by Verónica Falcón), originally from Michoacán, on their agricultural pursuits in California’s verdant Central valley. What could have been melancholic vignettes of José’s days – from his pre-dawn wake-up calls to the physical toll of farm work and the challenge of adjusting to an array of American schools – is instead presented with a refreshing perspective. Young José, heartwarmingly played by Juan Pablo Monterrubio, navigates these challenges with innocence and wonder, providing viewers with a lens that’s more about discovery than despair. Abella’s dynamic camera work immerses us in this world, turning potential moments of criticism into uplifting monologues. The film seamlessly shifts between Spanish and English, adding an authentic touch to the family’s journey. Through the highs and lows, José’s undying spirit and his awe of the vast universe underscore the narrative, reminding viewers of the universal pursuit of dreams.
In the captivating film “A Million Miles Away,” Michelle Krusiec portrays a teacher, Miss Young, who observes a spark in José’s unique love for mathematics and his unwavering dream of becoming an astronaut. This aspiration of his is depicted as both a closely-guarded secret and a potent, nearly spiritual drive. Throughout the narrative, various characters, including his best friend Beto, played by Bobby Soto, his wife Adela, portrayed by Rose Salazar, and his eldest son Julio, played by Carlos S Sanchez, constantly question José’s longing to journey into the cosmos. Every time, José’s response revolves around a simple sentiment: it’s his calling. His thoughts are consumed by the vast expanse of space, leading Beto to comment, “Who better than a migrant? Someone familiar with venturing into the unknown. Isn’t that the perfect candidate to brave the journey beyond Earth?”
The film astutely acknowledges the inherent challenges of representation in its plot, and tackles these themes with heartfelt sincerity rather than being overly didactic. As the sole Mexican American engineer in Livermore labs during the 1980s, José confronts raw and poignant discrimination. Despite his credentials, he finds himself in a dim, windowless office handed mundane tasks, and is mistakenly identified as the new janitor by the secretary. The movie poignantly showcases the uphill battle he faces, constantly striving and working double to achieve even a fraction of acknowledgment, with one such moment underlined by the iconic track “Whip It!”.
In a cinematic portrayal that deftly blends levity with solemn undertones, the film presents an engaging journey sprinkled with moments of domesticity against the backdrop of an ambitious biopic narrative. There’s an unmistakable flair as it pivots between chats about laundry and the intricacies of space missions. Adela’s character, brilliantly portrayed by Salazar, is testament to the strength of womanhood. Despite being a mother of five and shelving her own dreams for her husband’s aspirations, she’s determined not to be relegated to a clichéd supporting role, fervently telling José, “I refuse to be the passive, perpetually irritated spouse. So don’t push me into that corner.”
As the plot progresses and José finds his footing in NASA, the narrative somewhat morphs into an ode to astronautical triumphs. From intense underwater astronaut drills to the emblematic imagery of the orange space suits, it’s a visual feast. There’s a poignant nod to the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, a tragedy that claimed the lives of seven of Hernández’s colleagues. Some might argue that the depiction verges on being overly theatrical, bordering on being more of an inspirational monologue than a film. Yet, it’s Peña’s authentic portrayal and the emphasis on the tight-knit community that truly brings the movie’s moving climax to life. A tale that voyages beyond terrestrial confines, yet is anchored with heartfelt emotion.