White Nights opens sensationally with Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Roland Petit’s intense consideration of suicide, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. After the dynamic performance the camera pulls back to reveal the applauding London audience as Baryshnikov’s character, Nikolai (Kolya) Rodchenko, takes his bows. Kolya, like Baryshnikov himself, is perhaps the world’s greatest dancer, a Russian defector who has found as much fame as he has shelter in the West. But on the way to his next engagement in Japan, his plane goes down over Siberia in one of the most hair-raising crashes ever filmed. Panicking, Kolya tries to destroy his identity papers and is severely hurt while doing so. Recovering in a Siberian army hospital, his worst fears are confirmed: the Soviets have discovered his papers.
Blatantly anti-Soviet, White Nights is still one of the most superbly crafted movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. The film is as gripping as it is old-fashioned. The Soviets, supervised by the cunning Col. Chaiko (Jerzy Skolomowski), pretend that Kolya is too ill to be moved from Siberia. Their plan is to convince him to dance at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, making it appear that he has changed his political affiliation. To that end, Chaiko coerces a black
American defector, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), to take Kolya into his home. Raymond, who is a tap dancer, has married a Russian, Darya (Isabella Rossellini). He occasionally performs at the army base and consumes plenty of vodka.
The two men are immediately at odds. Neither can understand the other’s defection. In a bravura sequence the drunken Raymond tells Kolya his history, punctuating his story with tap dancing. Being black in America, as well as a frontline witness to the horrors of Vietnam, made him turn from his own country. In Kolya’s case, he has already been tried as a criminal and sentenced in his absence to 15 years in prison. For that reason, he has no choice but to go to Leningrad and pretend that he will perform at the Kirov. Meanwhile, he plans an escape to the safety of the U.S. Embassy, enlisting the help of his former lover, Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren), an official at the Kirov whom he left behind when he defected. Although bitter, she still loves him.
The script integrates dance into the thriller mechanism so deftly that it becomes a metaphor for freedom. In Leningrad, Kolya and Raymond discover that for all their differences they share a passion for dance. The men’s solos and their joyful duet are expressions of how they feel, rather than set pieces divorced from the action. And the story has a touching resonance because it parallels
Baryshnikov’s own history. When Kolya stands in the darkened Kirov with a tear rolling down his cheek, it is almost impossible to separate the movie from the reality of Baryshnikov’s life. Like Kolya, he can never go home again.
From its brilliant opening scenes to the climax outside the U.S. Embassy, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) gives White Nights a pulse and a heart. In addition to the powerful performances by Baryshnikov and Hines, Hackford has drawn sterling portrayals from the rest of the cast. Skolomowski is unsettling as the bigoted Chaiko, a man whose charming veneer is a cover for absolute ruthlessness. Mirren is touching as the brave ex-ballerina trapped by her own conflicting emotions. And Rossellini, who bears a strong resemblance to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, is a nostalgic presence. The Soviets in White Nights live in a world of unreality where their roots are constantly thwarting their desire for individuality. The movie is single-minded in its perception of Soviet life: even the school for young ballerinas is a nest of vipers. As propaganda, the movie is overdone. But in White Nights the heart speaks so eloquently that it seems indecent for the mind to object.