Perhaps when Jose Hernandez first started looking up at the summer stars, he simply felt relief.
Stars in the sky meant that he and his family were done for the day. He could wash the dirt from his skin. Let his bleeding fingers heal a bit. Sure, Jose was young. But in a family of migrant farm workers, age didn’t matter. If he could walk, he could pick: grapes, peaches, corn, you name it. Once one California field was picked, Jose’s father and mother would pack the kids in the car and drive to the next. And the next. And the next.
But then, one July night in 1969, Jose saw, along with his family, something incredible: a Saturn V rocket pushed through the sky with three people pinned to its needle-like tip. Up, up, up it went.
And suddenly, those stars seemed closer than they once did. They glittered with possibility.
Mrs. Young, Jose’s schoolteacher for a short time, had asked her class to write an essay for her, exploring the theme, “When I grow up.” She was asking her class to dream a little. What do you want to be? What do you want to do? Jose wasn’t so good with writing; he was still getting used to speaking English. But he could draw. Soon, he turned in a picture of himself piloting a corncob rocket. And in the sky filled with crayon stars, he pointed to the smiley face peering from the rocket’s window. He wrote “Astronaut. ME!”
A migrant worker’s shot of making it to space is a long one. The road ahead could be unimaginably difficult with no guarantees.
‘Course, getting to the moon at all was thought by many to be pretty outlandish, too. Turns out, the dream just needed a 363-foot rocket, 20 tons of fuel per second of flight, lots of math and even more courage.
By comparison, Jose Hernandez’ dream to become an astronaut seems like a piece of cake.
Spoiler warning: Jose does make it to NASA—eventually. You can read all about the real-life Jose Hernandez on the internet. But it was hardly a piece of cake. His story is one of talent and opportunity, yes. But more than that, it’s one of dogged endurance.
Jose applied for NASA’s space program 12 times before he got in. For more than a decade, he honed his skills, developed new talents and pushed his body in order to be one of the very few people chosen.
Once he gets in, Jose is warned that most folks don’t make it through the training. But Jose is prepared for all of these challenges, and for that he can perhaps thank his father.
Jose’s real father, Salvador, only had a third-grade education. But that belies the wisdom he handed down in the form of five “ingredients” for success. The recipe begins with knowing what you want. Ingredient No. 2: knowing where you are and how far you have to go. Ingredient No. 3 is making a roadmap of how to get there, and so on. The recipe’s not (pardon the pun) rocket science. Yet, it feels so profound and actionable that it seems like every mom or dad might want to pass on similar lessons to their kids at some point.
But while Salvador’s recipe proved to be critical to Jose’s drive to become an astronaut, Salvador’s sacrifices were perhaps even more so. He and his wife had dreams, too—dreams of making enough money to buy a house of their own. But when Mrs. Young, one of Jose’s teachers, points out that all that migrant farm work could be stunting their own kids’ futures (especially that of the obviously bright Jose), they give up that dream to help foster the dreams of their children.
Jose eventually has a family of his own. His wife, Adela, and their kids must make their own sacrifices. Adela gives up her dream of owning her own restaurant for a time to fund Jose’s dream of becoming an astronaut. His kids lose precious, irreplaceable time with him. Those sacrifices are significant, and some might question whether they’re worth it. But Jose’s family doesn’t question: They form the mighty rocket that helps carry Jose to his dreams.
Jose notes that most of his rivals for a spot at NASA are Caucasian. And when he talks with an astronaut who’s in charge of Jose’s training, a woman of Indian descent, she acknowledges that there’s an added layer of difficulty for them both. They both have had to work that much harder to get where they are. But at the same time, she adds, it’s so important for others like them to see what they’ve achieved.
Jose finds support throughout his life, folks who could see beyond stereotypes to recognize Jose’s character, intelligence and drive. Mrs. Young becomes an early catalyst for the boy’s dreams. An employer later sees that Jose has talent when some of his coworkers only see a guy worthy of grunt work. His taskmasters at NASA push him hard, but it’s all for the purpose of putting him in position to succeed.
And while Jose certainly struggles with some work-life balance issues at times, his own priorities come back down to Earth (so to speak) without sacrificing his ultimate goals. He tries to spend as much time with his family as he can. After seemingly shunning aspects of his Hispanic heritage to better blend in, Jose embraces it once more. And through his story, Jose becomes a real hero for so many—but especially for those who worked in the fields and know what it’s like to have blisters on their hands.
“Who better than a migrant [to go into space]?” Jose’s cousin (affectionately called Pepito) tells him. “Somebody that knows what it’s like to dive into the unknown? Who better than that?”
It seems that Jose and his family—both immediate and extended—are Catholics, and their faith is important to all of them. A baby is Christened in a Catholic church. A cross hangs on a wall. We see after-marriage dances and after-funeral wakes.
When Jose’s getting ready to leave for NASA, his cousin gives him an amulet—presumably a Catholic one. We know that it’s a significant gesture, but we don’t see it again. There’s a joking reference to the inquisition.
Jose officially meets his future wife, Adela, at a car dealership (where Adela works). He asks her out; she says no, but only because he’ll need to meet Adela’s father first.
During that incredibly uncomfortable family meeting, Adela’s father immediately asks Jose what his intentions are.
“My daughter is not allowed to go out on dates and that kind of things,” he says. “If you want to visit her, you will always be welcome. But I have to be present.” Jose mostly adheres to the father’s rules—but he does show up early one day, and Adela’s mother tells the two of them (with a smile) to talk quickly if they have important things to say to one another. They indeed just talk, and shortly thereafter, they marry. Several children follow, and we see the two kiss affectionately.
When Jose is in isolation at NASA and prepping for a launch, Adela calls Jose up and asks what he’s doing. “Looking at a picture of Salma Hayek,” he admits. (The picture itself, which Adela sees later, is a standard celebrity still, though her outfit does display a wee bit of cleavage.) Some fellow NASA friends slipped the picture under Jose’s door and wrote a message on it: “Thank you for going to space,” “Salma” wrote. “P.S., if it doesn’t work out with you and Adela, give me a call.”
The space program, as we’ve learned all too well over the decades, comes with its share of dangers. Jose is at NASA during the time of the Columbia disaster (when the space shuttle broke up when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere), and he loses a good friend. We see news footage of what’s left of the shuttle reentering the atmosphere and of workers searching the crash site for debris.
One of Jose’s relatives is apparently shot and killed. The victim was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” someone tells Jose. But Jose knows that there’ve been way too many similar “accidents” in the area lately; he was likely killed in a shootout—though whether Jose’s relative was an active participant or accidentally killed isn’t clear.
NASA training is designed to push participants to the limit: Several trainees are strapped in a capsule and submerged in a pool of water—an exercise designed to be intentionally disorienting. While not inherently dangerous (given the presence of rescue divers), we trainees unable to free themselves, necessitating help from others.
Jose gets a job as an engineer for a national laboratory in 1985, during the heart of the Cold War. The lab is working on the country’s missile defense system, and we hear some discussion about possible missile attacks and Russian invasions. Adela jokingly threatens to strangle Jose “with my bare hands” if he loses their wedding rings in space.
A few mild profanities are heard, including “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” Someone hurls the epithet “numb nuts.”
Jose and other characters sometimes drink beer. When he shows up at his cousin’s home with a six-pack of beer and a package of diapers, Pepito jokes that stores put the beer close to the diapers for a reason; because depressed dads on late-night diaper runs will buy it.
Jose’s dad throws back shots of tequila at Jose’s and Adela’s wedding, and he offers it to others.
Jose softly sings a song, in Spanish, that includes a reference to someone’s car tires being “full of bad weed.”
Jose deals with racism throughout the film—one more hurdle that he must clear to reach his goals.
As a child, kids laugh at his accent. At his first job as an engineer, the receptionist mistakes him for a janitor and hands him a set of keys. (Her misconception isn’t cleared up for months, it seems.) Coworkers seem to dismiss his talents.
For a time, Jose feels hyper-aware of just how “different” his lineage and background is compared to other engineers (and aspiring astronauts). Accordingly, he asks Adela not to make him Mexican food for lunch. “I don’t want to be known as the enchiladas guy at work,” he tells her. He stops listening to his Mariachi-style music and tries to enjoy Rick Astley. He sells his tricked-out Impala, which his cousin—only half jokingly—calls a betrayal.
For years, Jose hides his literally astronomical goals from Adela. “Why wouldn’t you share this with your wife?” she eventually asks.
“Tenacity is a superpower,” someone tells Jose. And so it is.
We have no lack of heroes in the movies. After all, we live in an age of superheroes and superspies.
But folks like us? Those who don’t have super-strength and can’t turn invisible? Those who deal with petty job annoyances and familial responsibilities and real-world mess? Sometimes, it seems those heroes are missing from the screen.
Jose Hernandez is a real-world hero, one who has something to teach both kids and adults. With his father’s “five ingredients” in his back pocket and the love of his wife on his sleeve, Jose pushes to achieve his audacious, outlandish dream. And he does it not by dreaming alone, but through hard work. And work. And more work.
When Jose turns yet another application for NASA—this one in person—the astronaut accepting the application recognizes his name. He asks Jose what makes this application different.
“Over the course of the last 10 years, every academic, professional and personal decision I’ve made [has been] with the space program in mind,” he says. “I’ve gotten my master’s in electrical engineering. I’m a pilot now with over 800 miles under my belt. I have my scuba-diving certificate. I just ran the San Francisco Marathon, and I can speak Russian.
“I’ve applied 12 times,” Jose continues. “And, yes, I’ve been on the verge of giving up after each and every rejection. But you know what, sir? Here I am. So you can turn me down again if you want, but rest assured, I’ll be standing here again in a year.”
I’ve written reviews where I’ve sometimes criticized characters for chasing their dreams, no matter the cost. There’s nothing wrong with just being a good husband, a good father, I’ve said. There’s something to be said for sacrifice. And that is absolutely true.
But you know what? There’s something to be said for chasing your dreams, too. If no one did—if people always gave up on them—we’d have no astronauts, no statesmen, no football stars, no heroes. And A Million Miles Away reminds us that dreams require sacrifice, too—not just from the dreamers, but from those who love them.
In this movie, we learn that astronauts, when they go up into space, don’t go alone. They bring everyone who believed in them along for the ride.
A Million Miles Away is a great story with not just one inspirational message, but a crockpot full of them. This is one not to be missed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.