The title of the fact-based “A Million Miles Away” doesn’t refer to how far into space its protagonist eventually goes; it’s how distant the goal of becoming an astronaut feels to the first-ever Mexican American migrant worker to achieve it. The film’s gravitational pull turns out to be not that years-long struggle, however, but the story’s closest aspect: the loving relationship at its center.
It’s no spoiler to say José M. Hernández (Michael Peña) makes it to space; it’s in the trailers — it’s even on the poster. We know we’ll see how his family broke the restrictive cycle of stunting kids’ education to follow work, how many applications Hernández made to the space program, the skills he had to hone to compete. That’s all interesting enough, especially with the engaging Peña in the role.
What lingers, though, is the loving depiction of José and wife Adela (Rosa Salazar of “Alita: Battle Angel”). The easy chemistry of Peña as the humble and brilliant aspirant and Salazar as the supportive, put-upon wife with dreams of her own makes their scenes together highlights. Salazar brings life and charm to a role that, in another biopic, could have been pretty thankless.
Peña has long been one of the easiest-to-root-for actors in Hollywood since stealing the Oscar-winning “Crash” with his sympathetic performance. He has proved his versatility as a good cop in the underseen “End of Watch,” an ice-veined special operative in the otherwise languid “Jack Ryan” TV series and the hilarious sidekick in the “Ant-Man” movies (his absence in the third one contributing to that installment’s underwhelming nature). Here, he’s back treading the inspirational ground of his turn as “Cesar Chavez,” effortlessly carrying the leading load again.
The journey begins promisingly, with a touching glimpse of the migrant family leaving loved ones in Mexico to the strains of “California Dreamin’ ” first en español, then English. From there, the biopic is delivered in straightforward fashion, not quite achieving velocity to escape the genre’s expectations. The performances of the family members, including Julio Cesar Cedillo as the Hernández patriarch, help separate it from the chaff, though perhaps not by a million miles.
There’s also the film’s refusal to let its protagonist forget his humble beginnings: Hernández is frequently shown in the context of his extended family. There’s a charming moment in which, showing up in his spanking-new astronaut togs to impress his wife, he ends up washing dishes in her restaurant.
Oddly omitted from the script are Hernández’s groundbreaking work in digital mammography and his later political aspirations (he has run for Congress and, considering his history, it might not be his last attempt). It also leaves out one of his best public quotes, regarding an epiphany he had as he looked on Earth from space: “I had to go out of this world to realize that borders are human-made concepts designed to separate us.”
“A Million Miles Away” doesn’t exactly zoom past the stratosphere, but it’s kept in orbit by Hernández’s inspirational true story and the comfort of family ties.