Every Classroom Deserves to Screen A Million Miles Away

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like A Million Miles Away might not exist.

I don’t normally hop into the first-person when I write, but I’ll step in that lane for a moment with A Million Miles Away. When I’m not wearing the press-credentialed film critic hat (which is pretentiously Irish and woolen when it’s wintertime), I’ve spent half of my life now as an educator. Good movies, most certainly, have their place in the classroom. I don’t know how many of you remember the legitimate feature films your elementary, middle school, or high school teachers presented you with TVs rolled into rooms on carts, but I sure do and continue that teacher’s practice today (sans rolling cart). 

Playing the film critic, I will have moments after watching certain movies where the credits roll, I slap the armrest, and declare, one way or another and sometimes with colorful language, “By golly, every school kid needs to see that movie.” With great hope, I actively seek out the next educational movie opportunity and swarm to it. Even better, having a film critic’s access feeds me at the front of the line and grants me a wider platform than the old water cooler in the teacher’s lounge to champion those film discoveries and spread the good word.

An astronaut gazes out in a space shuttle.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

In a solid year, Hollywood can give us a half-dozen or more ideal teacher-ready movies. By that, I don’t mean genial distraction-level entertainment like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Little Mermaid or something skewing to parental supervision/reflection like Barbie (though that’s the best young person talking point movie so far this year). I mean a movie that digs into the marginalized subject of Social Studies with some teachable moments kids can hang some thoughts and dreams on. With the fullest stamp of approval this teacher can give, Amazon’s new A Million Miles Away fulfills those higher standards as a perfect cinematic classroom catalyst. 

For those of you who follow my work, I even go so far as to write my film reviews with life lessons in mind from the serious to the farcical. This feature from writer/director Alejandro Márquez Abella chronicling former NASA astronaut José Hernández leans on five tenets of a father’s advice labeled as “ingredients” and labels chapter cards with their verbiage. It’s like the movie did my lesson planning (and review writing) for me. Any teacher in the world (just ask them) will take that shortcut every chance they get. If that wasn’t enough, A Million Miles Away offers and celebrates an influential school teacher supporting character that inspires the career path of our biopic subject. That’s where A Million Miles Away earns even more extra credit.

A teacher bends down to talk to one of her students in A Million Miles Away
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

As a child, José Hernández came to the United States of America as a migrant farm worker from Michoacan, Mexico. Seasonal harvest time pilgrimages commonly brought Jose’s family to the Stockton, California area where they tended to corn, grapes, or whatever was the steady work available. At a young age, Jose’s proud father Salvador (played by Julio Cesar Cedillo of Sicario) conveyed his five ingredients and his universal truth that “This won’t be your future, but it will always be your past.” Common from both hardship and strength of heart, Salvador’s extremely realistic wisdom beats all of the cute S.M.A.R.T. goal processes out there floating in corporate office cultures:

Ingredient #1: Find Your Goal

Ingredient #2: Know How Far Away You Are

Ingredient #3: Draw a Road Map

Ingredient #4: In You Don’t Know How, Learn

Ingredient #5: When You Think You’ve Made It, You Probably Have to Work Harder

A kneeling father hands his son an ear of corn.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The nomadic fits and spurts of the Hernández leads to inconsistent schooling for José and his close cousin Beto. José, especially, feels resigned to the field work that plagues him until inspiration strikes from watching the Apollo moon missions on television and the mentoring work from a kind and keen school teacher (Michelle Krusiec of The Invitation) that recognized his “charming, simple, creative, and evocative” intelligence. With her “you are a force of nature” nudge, a self-made corn cob toy becomes José’s first rocket of many in his life.

By the time we transition to José in adulthood, played by all-time “That Guy” actor Michael Peña and driving a restored and repainted version of his father’s old car, he has excelled in school and graduated from college, an achievement higher than most of his family and peers. As he sets his sights on engineering, José realizes how low he is on the career totem pole when he’s commonly mistakenly profiled as the janitor working at UC-Santa Barbara. 

A woman shows a customer some paperwork in A Million Miles Away
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Peña, at 47, is a shade too old to pull off portraying a man in his twenties. Luckily, the film doesn’t hover in that stretch long. While many viewers will head straight to Michael’s memorable comedic presence (we’ll never forget Ant-Man), this biopic requires him to play a fairly square historical figure, something he’s not a stranger to whatsoever (World Trade Center, Cesar Chavez). Nevertheless, the twinkle of his lovable and youthful charisma– a signature trait that has served him well for 20 years– comes through just fine when necessary for levity in A Million Miles Away. You can’t help but look at him and smile.

After proving himself among his peers, José begins to apply to NASA. During this time, he marries and settles down as a family man with his wife Adela, played by Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel). He took on challenging projects and often foreign assignments to climb his dream’s ladder, often missing his wife and five children at home. This is where A Million Miles Away begins to emotionally label and stack up the many personal and familial sacrifices it took from many parties to get José closer to his astronaut dream, often putting other wishes (especially Adela’s of owning a restaurant) on hold.

A husband and wife hold a baby for baptism in A Million Miles Away
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Rosa Salazar takes what would normally be a regrettable stay-at-home-wife-and-mother part and gives it her own ethos. Unlike the usual stand-by-your-man stereotype, worry is not Adela’s primary emotional setting, nor is any embattled impatience or selfishness. Adela is a fellow immigrant who finds her own pride next to the undiminished support she carries for her husband. Thanks to Salazar’s strong stance, the lock-step unity of the Hernández is as inspiring as the headline success story itself.

Asserting himself after a decade of hard work and a dozen of rejected applications, José is finally admitted into NASA and starts all over again with new training, knowledge, responsibilities, and all-new sacrifices. His undaunted and selfless spirit shines through and impresses his superior officers, including Frederick Sturckow (TV veteran Garret Dillahunt) and Kalpana Chawla (Sarayu Blue of Sons of Tucson). Just when he’s close to making it on a future space mission, the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster jars confidence and delays the entire program.  

A man in a suit confronts an astronaut in a lobby.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

It would take five more years of tireless preparation and multiplied sacrifices again before José would get the promotion and don the famed blue suit of being a member of a flight crew. Though this is the historic opportunity (mission STS-128 about the Discovery) he waited for his whole life, the elevated work to prepare for space and a visit to the International Space Station increases in difficulty and required mettle.

For a smallish independent film supported by Amazon, the production appears to have been granted generous access to NASA. The training exercises and facilities shown in A Million Miles Away, especially the aquanaut equipment, give the film both rich production value and storytelling legitimacy. The resulting film is both a love letter to NASA’s impactful prestige and a nod of humble respect to the lost Columbia crew that intersects the Hernández story.

If A Million Miles Away feels like it moves with the energy of an underdog sports movie, you have a good nose for swell. Sure enough, sports movie specialist Bettina Gilois– who worked on the screenplays of Disney hits Glory Road and McFarland, USA– collaborated with director Alejandra Márquez Abella (the award-winning Northern Skies Over Empty Space and the 2018’s The Good Girls) and Love Hard director Hernán Jiménez to get this memoir condensed and tuned to rise to its appropriate climax. On this remarkable journey, the core always remained on the people more than the spectacle. Call this kind of movie sweet, simple, and old-fashioned, but there’s a dearth of entertaining movies like A Million Miles Away fit for families and classrooms. There’s not a second where this film’s heart is not in the right place, and this school teacher will take these submissions every chance he gets.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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