One of the most enthralling moments of “A Million Miles Away” – a biopic based on the life of astronaut José Hernández – takes place at night in a darkened living room.
José (Michael Peña) and his wife Adela (Rosa Salazar) are discussing José’s NASA application and the prospect of him actually going to space. As they discuss how difficult this chapter of their lives will be, Adela tells José that she doesn’t want to be cast in the role of the whiny, permanently annoyed wife. She wants to be on equal footing.
There are numerous biopics about men – such as Hernández, who was the first migrant farmworker to go to space – who have done great things. Not many of them take the time to delve deep into the inner lives of the people behind that great man – often a wife. Even in the case of movies with strong performances from the actors in those roles (Aunjanue Ellis in “King Richard,” Claire Foy in “First Man”), it’s usually the actor pushing the character past what’s in the script, steeping her with depth that might not quite exist on the page.
While so much of “A Million Miles Away,” directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella, feels like your run-of-the-mill biopic, the choice to center the story on the relationship between José and Adela pushes it toward something that feels a little more even-handed. Hernández’s story is incredible, and the movie is perfectly watchable when it does nothing more than give you the bare bones of everything he achieved. But the ways in which the script tries – and in some ways, succeeds – at overcoming the wife character tropes these movies are often saddled with is more interesting than any trip to outer space.
José Hernández spent his childhood working alongside his family harvesting crops in fields across California. When he first meets Adela in the film, he’s working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and she’s working at a used car dealership. They feel a kinship almost immediately. Both are the children of migrant workers, and both have a seemingly impossible dream – José to be an astronaut, and Adela to open her own restaurant.
Adela’s line about her refusal to play the ever-complaining wife is a bit overwrought, and “A Million Miles Away” can be a bit clumsy in its overtness, opting to tell where showing might be a more useful strategy. But the moments where the writers – Alejandra Márquez Abella, Bettina Gilois, and Hernán Jiménez – allow the actors to work with the subtext of a moment and turn audience expectation on its head are where the movie finds its footing.
Women in these types of roles are often relegated to supporter or detractor, a binary that doesn’t allow for any nuance of feeling. However, Adela often occupies both of these spaces, along with others, simultaneously. While José tells her fleetingly about his astronomical aspirations, he keeps his NASA applications – and subsequent rejections – a secret from her. The moment she confronts him about this is filled with the anger you might expect, but for different reasons than you might think. The frustration doesn’t stem so much from the lie, but from the fact that he never even gave her a chance to offer her support. The lack of trust – and the fact that he removed any chance she had of being on equal ground with him on this – is more upsetting than anything else.
Salazar elevates the scene (and every scene) into something even greater. In the scene in the living room where they discuss how they are going to make NASA happen, Adela puts the brakes on her restaurant dream for the time being. She has a line about sacrifice that could be played as a tender, almost triumphant moment for the couple, but Salazar doesn’t keep things that simple. There’s an underlying sadness to this decision, a hint of resentment that she tries to keep hidden. It doesn’t take away from the affection you can feel between the two actors, but rather does the opposite. Disappointment is human, and Salazar brings a human edge to Adela that could have been easily forgotten.
Salazar’s best scene in the film occurs when José is unable to be there for the birth of one of their children, talking to the baby for the first time through the phone instead. Throughout this sequence, Adela weeps, laughs, flirts, and grows somber, Salazar’s face displaying a myriad of emotions during what must have been one of the most emotionally difficult moments in this woman’s life. Through her boundless expression, Salazar is really the center of warmth in the film but not in a simplistic, warm and fuzzy type of way. Her warmth can burn hot – she’s thorny and she’s passionate, she’s loving and she’s angry, and a million other things besides. If there’s a rocket to be found in “A Million Miles Away,” it’s her.