A Smile As Big As The Moon debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
In the latest episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington, on his way to receive some cosmonaut training during a tour of Russia, sums up the decline of the space program, as only Karl Pilkington can: "It's just something that was done years ago in the '60s. It was all about space race, wasn't it? People keen to go up there, but then it's just died out. To me, it's sort of like how everyone was going to Tellaro in the '80s. Everywhere has its day, know what I mean? After that, been and done. Before that, space. There are places that are talked about in certain decades, and after awhile, people realize, they're not that great, and they stop going. I think that's how it was with space and the moon." The last time TV applied itself to the problem of getting people more excited than that about NASA, Homer Simpson found himself stuffed into a space capsule with special guest voice talent Buzz Aldrin. A Smile As Big As The Moon's solution is to set the action in the late '80s, when everyone was presumably less jaded, and center the story on a class of special education students under the charge of John Corbett.
Corbett (who just over a year ago starred in another gross and sticky Hallmark Hall Of Fame production, the terminal-illness-for-the-holidays tearjerker November Christmas) plays Mike Kerjes, a high school teacher and football coach who, beginning in 1988, set out on a mission to take his students to the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. At the time, Space Camp had no history of accommodating special needs kids, and in the movie, Kerjes has to overcome the reluctance of both his principal and the Space Camp brass.
Big As The Moon has some hurdles of its own to overcome, starting with the fact that there's something about ineffably silly about hearing adults, in a spirit of absolute seriousness, throwing around the term "Space Camp." I started smirking during Corbett's opening monologue introducing the kids by their names and special conditions (Tourette's, autism, dyslexia, ADD, bipolar disorder, etc.), but I didn't start giggling until his cute sidekick, Robin, said to him, "You're going to apply pressure to Space Camp!?" in a tone appropriate to delivering the line, "You're going to cross Don Corleone!?," or at least, "You're going to demand to see the great and powerful Oz!?"
It could be worse. In the summer of 1986, Twentieth-Century Fox released a movie called Space Camp, in which a woman instructor (Kate Capshaw) and a pack of kids visiting the camp are aboard a space shuttle that's accidentally shot into space. The movie was released four months after Americans sat glued to their TV sets watching the actual space shuttle Challenger, with the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, blow up. So the bar on Space Camp movies is set pretty low. If A Smile As Big As The Moon manages to make it to the closing credits without being overshadowed by a national tragedy to which it bears an eerie resemblance, it'll be the crowning example of its genre.
That's not saying a lot, even if we are grading on a curve. There's a sorry tradition in movies and TV of using characters with special needs not as characters but as sources of light meant to reflect on how noble the "normal" characters who care about them are, or, as in Rain Man, to help "heal" a sexy but emotionally damaged character by inspiring him to become a better person. Big As The Moon drinks deep from both of these polluted troughs. It might actually be fun to watch kids enjoy themselves going through astronaut training exercises, but most of the film is devoted to Kerjes' struggle to get them there. He seems meant to be a pushy, aggressive guy who makes things happen and isn't afraid to get in people's faces to do what he's convinced is right, in short, everything you'd never imagine John Corbett to be and less. When he has his big meeting with the Colonel who runs Space Camp and is dead set against letting the kids in, he's advised to let Robin do all the talking, because she's a "Southern belle," whose gentle ways will charm the Colonel and get past his defenses, whereas he is "a bull in a china shop."
When the meeting takes place, we get to see Robin wrapping up her presentation, and then the Colonel asks if Kerjes has anything to add. Kerjes says that his students are "basically good kids who've been dealt a bad hand. They live their lives in the margins… Outside of the classroom, not much is asked of them, nor is much expected. Can they try your patience? Yes, they can. And do they sometimes break your heart? Yes, sir, they certainly do. But sometimes, there are remarkable moments, and I've seen this with my own eyes, when more is asked and more is expected of them, and they rise to the occasion, gratefully, gladly, just to remind you of the remarkable power of the human spirit." This is the first time I've ever heard someone use the phrase "a bull in a china shop" to describe someone who, if he gets inside the china shop and opens his mouth, will bore everybody in the room to death.
The fight to get the kids to Space Camp isn't much of a battle; everybody pretty much rolls over for Kerjes whenever they look into his eyes and listen to his Sominex-like intonations. Amazingly, the kids don't even throw him off the bus taking them to Space Camp when he grabs a mouthpiece and starts singing "The Gambler," complete with hand gestures, funny faces, and a demand that they sing along. ("You know the words!") It's like the "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous crossed with the "Beautiful Boy" scene from Mr. Holland's Opus multiplied by a root canal; you want it to end with Corbett's head and his torso lying on opposite ends of the bus.)
He also has to contend with his football players being mean to the students, though it turns out they have an understandable reason: They feel jealous because he's been spending all his time with the Space Camp gang, and God knows there's never enough John Corbett to go around. From what we get to see, it doesn't look as if the busy Kerjes gets to spend a lot of time at home, and when he does drop by to play Monopoly with his little boy, it's just so that he can suddenly look up like Hugh Laurie every week on House when he hears the magic word that triggers his final, correct diagnosis, say, "That's it! Keep it simple! A board game!" (Translation: he's been having trouble finding a way to get his students ready for the test they need to pass on space knowledge, so he runs off to create an educational board game that turns them all into little Wernher von Brauns.) Kerjes' wife is played by Moira Kelly, who drops in every half hour or so, whenever he's feeling dejected. She says a line or two about what a swell guy he is, he feels better, and then she's gone again. And she still has more to do here than she ever did on The West Wing.
The young-Tom-Cruise role here is that of Scott, a surly hunk in the Jordan Catalano mode, who's pissed off about being stuck in a special ed class with all the losers, just because he's dyslexic and has "anger management issues." He wants to "test out" and break into Gen Pop, but at Space Camp, he suddenly discovers the rewards of team work and blossoms into a strong, natural leader. He even wins the "Right Stuff" award at the Space Camp graduation ceremonies, singled out as the camper who has "best demonstrated the characteristics of a true astronaut." Our heroes clean up at the awards show, even though the scene begins with Corbett telling them that "We won just by being here," a line he delivers without a trace of irony, as if he were oblivious to the fact that he's summing up an attitude that special education instructors have regarded as condescending for generations, at the same time that Fox News commentators and other tough guys have been denouncing it as carrying the seeds of the demise of western civilization.
A Smile As Big As The Moon isn't a drama, because it's too nice to put up with any conflict. Worse than that, it's suffused with the kind of boring, cushiony niceness that's likely to turn any viewer with half a brain into a meaner person while watching it, if only in self-defense. When Corbett is having trouble raising money to fund the trip, he goes to see the stout, smiley Dan, at Big Dan's Burger Shed, and Dan casually hands him a check for a thousand bucks, which was big money back in them days. Some time passes, and Corbett's fundraising efforts have been such a bust that he thinks he'll have to cancel the trip, but he goes back to Big Dan's Burger Shed, and Dan, who's heard of his troubles, just as casually hands him a check for $50,000. I'd hate to imagine what kind of twisted human being could watch this shit and not hope for a scene where it turns out that Dan stole the money from a church poor box and that the reason he's so interested in the special-ed kids who work at his Burger Shed is that he likes to take them in the back room to do things that would make the cast of Law & Order: SVU throw up.