Michael Peña has an ingenuous face. There is no trace of malice in his eyes, and you feel quite comfortable whenever you see him on the screen. You never think of him as a criminal who would harm other characters. This is why whenever he tries to be serious (like in Jack Ryan), we involuntarily crack up. I never for a second bought Peña as an agent or whatever in that Tom Clancy series and felt that he would just start shaking with laughter any second. Peña's innocence, however, serves him well in Alejandra Márquez Abella's A Million Miles Away. This drama, inspired by the real-life story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández, is obvious and easy to admire. It's as innocuous as Peña's expressions.
There is always a scene in movies like these where someone tells the main character that they will eventually be very successful. They are so sure of the protagonist's brilliance that it seems as if they have seen the future. In A Million Miles Away, José's teacher tells him, "You are a force of nature." She might have just as well read Hernández's book - Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut - which serves as an inspiration for this feature.
José was always an intelligent boy. As a kid, he used to give all the answers during the mathematics class. As an adult, he is seen wearing a red outfit during the first day of his job, making him stand out from the rest of the crowd (meaning - he's different from his colleagues). José, of course, is not considered as a significant member. The receptionist even mistakes him for a janitor. Another colleague, Weissberg (Jordan Dean), burdens him with simple chores like taking xeroxes. All these clichés are common in such inspirational films. Sometimes, I wonder if every great person walks on the same path or if they embellish their struggles and achievements for the screen according to the traditional biopic guidelines.
Yet again, the central figure is given so much importance that others around him get pushed to the background. If José is the sun, the other characters revolve around him like planets. His wife, Adela (Rosa Salazar), wants to open a restaurant, but her dreams are reduced to a footnote. When she finally achieves her goal, the moment is so underplayed it's rendered almost insignificant. Beto (Bobby Soto) wholeheartedly believes José will go to the space. He proudly looks at his brother and says he has managed to have a successful life and career. But Beto is treated less like a character and more like a device intended to give rise to an emotional moment. Everyone merely appreciates José, so much so that their existence becomes an afterthought. A man tells the recruits at NASA that their family members will sacrifice a lot for them, but this sacrifice is merely glimpsed through shots of a non-functional tap and garbage lying outside a house. We see the struggle but never feel it.
What we do feel, though, is the chemistry between Peña and Salazar. Joy leaks through every frame when their characters ask each other about their ambitions. The camera, too, adopts a shy, hesitative, and flirtatious movement. Still, it's confusing how, after their marriage, Adela tells José that she thought he was joking about being an astronaut. She does, at first, laugh at him during an earlier moment, but it's immediately made clear that he is serious. Then why does she still consider his goal as a joke?
A Million Miles Away displays José's rejections and exertions as seductive - exciting even. Shouldn't these portions have underlined his frustrations? The movie sees José's struggles like a pseudo-motivational video. The sequence is similar to a rousing speech delivered by an "influencer" on Instagram. Even the inspiring lines José utters at the NASA headquarters while giving his application form are tailor-made for generating applause (a man claps after listening to the speech, which is just the movie's way of giving you the cue to do the same thing).
Flaws and all, Peña makes us a part of his character's victory, and you can't help but cheer for his success. The most memorable scene, however, is the one where José, after announcing to his wife that he is one of the candidates going to the space, washes dishes in his uniform. The movie tells us that the real hero is the man who - when free from professional obligations - assists his wife with chores.
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