In “White Nights” (Plitt Century Plaza) Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Nikolai Rodchenko, a dancer-defector from the Kirov Ballet, who, after eight years and citizenship in the West, finds himself back in the Soviet Union after an airplane disaster over Siberia.
About halfway through the film he has a short, very private dance on what is supposed to be the stage of the Kirov--anguished, impassioned movements about enslavement and freedom to the voice of the late Vladimir Vysotsky, outcast Soviet singer-poet. Created primarily by Baryshnikov (with Twyla Tharp), it is a burning and indelible moment of humanism, shatteringly moving since it is touched with our knowledge of Baryshnikov’s own defection.
Savor the moment: It is the one time when director Taylor Hackford has everything right in this cold, trapped, claustrophobic movie, which manages to do wrong to two cultures and to the talents of both Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. It’s the most unpleasant, paranoid film making since the excesses of the Cold War.
When David Watkin’s camera work is beautiful, framing the two dancers perfectly as they move around a Kirov rehearsal hall, the music they’re dancing to is crummy MTV pop stuff, picked with an ear to the sound-track album. When the art direction--the Kirov exteriors or inside Baryshnikov’s handsome Leningrad apartment--is deft and elegantly correct, the costuming is so blatantly unsubtle as to make you giggle. (The film’s two Soviet women, Isabella Rossellini and Helen Mirren, wear red , even when an escaping Rossellini is attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible.) Rear-projection shots, as cars tour Leningrad, are of awful quality. At all times the wretched high-concept, low-intelligence story contrives to bring everything down to its sudsy level.
Screenwriters James Goldman and Eric Hughes, working from Goldman’s story, have decided that double dancing defectors will bring their point home better than one. So in addition to Baryshnikov’s character, there is black tap dancer Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines) who has quit the United States during Vietnam, married his young Soviet translator, Darya (Rossellini), and, once his propaganda usefulness is over, has been shunted up to Siberia, presumably to play Sportin’ Life in the frozen provinces forever.
In a move that passeth all reason, once the suavely snarling KGB Col. Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) gets his hands on Barysnikov, he puts him into the care of Hines and his wife, moving them all to Leningrad in the process. If the intention is to shape up an injured ballet dancer--the better to parade him at a gala only 10 days away--might it not be better to have him in old ballet hands rather than with a lachrymose, embittered tap dancer?
But brooding over logic will only make you crazy during these endless white nights. You will worry about inconsistencies, stupidities, improbabilities. If Baryshnikov is, as he says, thrilled about being able to dance Balanchine in the West, why don’t we see him dancing Balanchine, not that kitschy old war horse “Le Jeune Homme et La Mort”? Because this Roland Petit ballet is about the death of an artist? Pfui. Rather, because it’s sensationalistic semi-camp, the balletic equivalent of MTV, and so that the noose, so pointedly left for the Young Man in “Le Jeune Homme” can be echoed by a dangling electric cord on the deserted stage of the Kirov.
No one of sound mind would suggest that today’s Soviet Union is the place for artists to express themselves openly, but the oversimplification of “White Nights” becomes infuriating. Like so many Hollywood movies today, its characters live in isolation, one or two figures per landscape, barely ever interacting. The Soviet Union is virtually represented by three people: by the KGB Colonel, a bigot and a sadist who would twirl his mustaches if he only had them; by Rossellini, who cries endlessly, and by Mirren as the ex-lover-ballerina who does what she does For Love. Russians, even little Russian children in ballet class, are hateful and corrupt. Only one old Russian babushka is moved to kindness, and we never quite know why.
You cannot reduce whole nations and cultures to this sort of shorthand, or, indeed you can try, but you forfeit your audience’s good will in the process. So in place of characters with depth and complexity, worthy of our empathy, the actors must make do with these prosciutto-deep stereotypes. It doesn’t help, either, that the men are filled with hatred for each other throughout; genuine antipathy for most of the film, then mock-anger in order to fool Skolimowski’s KGB. Real or fake, it’s the anger that permeates the picture, and along with Skolimowski’s racist cracks, makes it a strident and uncomfortable place to be.
As for the dancing, which comes preceded by absurd “Flashdance” warm-ups, it’s as jazzed-up and simplistic as the rest of the film. Fine as the two men can be, they’re never let loose to do what each does best. Hines, the essence of speed and sophistication, must be neurotic and wretched, even in his dances; Baryshnikov (with the exception of the Vysotsky solo) never has material worthy of him. The story line seem to point to one great, joint dance number by the two of them as a joyous release, somewhere out of the Soviet Union, but it never comes.
As for the rest of the cast, Skolimowski and Geraldine Page take turns munching up the scenery. Skolimowski wins by a curled lip, but only because he’s on screen more. Only the exquisitely profiled Rossellini, who plays abject terror marvelously, and John Glover as the lanky CIA man with wire-rimmed-glasses and an H.R. Haldeman haircut, salvage any distinction in this turgid, gray-underwear movie.