Honestly, when I decided I wanted to write about this movie, I had trouble deciding whether it belonged in our Buried Treasures (movies that are great, but underappreciated) feature, or Guiltfree Pleasures (those movies that you rationally know aren’t great, but you love them anyway). It took me a bit of internal debate, but I’m firmly coming down on the side of Buried Treasure, because I still maintain that this film is actually good. Dated AF and certainly not perfect, but definitely good.
The concept was a fairly simple one—let’s get the greatest ballet dancer in the country and the greatest tap dancer in the country, and find an excuse to be in a movie together. Considering it was 1985 and the Cold War was alive and well, and, considering the aforementioned ballet dancer was also a famous defector, I don’t think it was too much of a stretch to find their story.
Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Nikolai Rodchenko, a Soviet-born ballet dancer. He defected to the US ten years earlier, and never looked back. By the greatest bad luck, the plane carrying him to a gig in Tokyo malfunctions, and crash lands in (you guessed it) Russia. Kolya (that’s his nickname) suffers a head injury, and though he tries flushing his passport down the toilet and pretending to be French, the KGB realises who he is. To say they didn’t appreciate the defection of one of their premier artists would be an understatement, and they take him into custody.
The plan is to get Kolya back dancing for them, but he’s going to take some persuading, and also a babysitter. KGB officer Colonel Chaiko has the perfect man for the job. Gregory Hines is Raymond Greenwood, an American tap dancer who happens to be an ex-patriot. Raymond got disillusioned by the United States after having served in the military. We don’t get details, but the idea is given that war turned him into someone he couldn’t live with—a murderer, a rapist. He quits the whole country, and aligns himself with the enemy, the Soviet Union.
Chaiko brings Kolya, Raymond, and Raymond’s Russian wife (Isabella Rossellini, in her first Hollywood film) to Leningrad, to begin the persuasion part of the plan. They figure, Raymond is a fellow dancer and he’s got a grudge against his homeland. If the two men can bond maybe he can make Kolya see how much better his life could be back in Russia. They even bring in Kolya’s old girlfriend Galina Ivanova (Dame Helen Mirren) to help lean on him. She’s a former ballerina, artistic director of the Kirov Ballet Company and still has feelings for the lover who left her behind. Mirren, by the way, is half-Russian on her father’s side and is completely believable as both a Soviet national and a former ballerina.
Obviously, the whole point of a film like this is the dancing. Since both the male leads are playing guys who are or were professional dancers, they don’t have to make up too many excuses to have them dancing. Sure, there are a couple of moments where you think you may have drifted into an actual musical, but really, you don’t care. When Raymond is giving Kolya a drunken tirade about Raymond’s backstory and how he came to be an ex-pat, Gregory Hines illustrates his monologue with tap. When Kolya is shouting at Galina how she needs to help him escape, she just happens to be listening to a gravelly-voiced Russian singer, to whose music Kolya can perfectly dance his frustration. The choreography was done by Twyla Tharp, who is known for innovative, outside-the-box choreography. It’s nifty, and it’s a lot of the non-traditional ballet she has him doing that shows off how ridiculously good Baryshnikov was.
Since Baryshnikov, like his character, had defected from the Soviet Union 11 years prior, the filming of White Nights became problematic. Baryshnikov wasn’t allowed to go to Russia to shoot anything, of course. Plus, the U.S.S.R. wasn’t keen on the subject matter. Director Taylor Hackford had to get creative, especially considering that at the time, it wouldn’t have been possible to artificially recreate the “white nights”. Six or so weeks of endless twilight only occurs in summer, in countries close to the Arctic Circle. They found an agreeable town in Finland to host the production, and even then, the producers had to convince local government that the film wasn’t going to be anti-Soviet. It may be that this was part of the inspiration for Hines’s character, who spends most of the film trashing the United States. Two guys, each defecting in a different direction and meeting in the middle in a buddy movie kind of levels the playing field.
I grew up in the ‘80s. As a young kid during the cold war, my only conception of Russia was that it was the other country that could blow up the world any time it wanted to. Movies like WarGames perpetuated the idea of the Soviet Union as the Black Hats, nebulous bad guys who had to do things like wait in line for bluejeans and toilet paper. I always found it interesting that “defector” was practically part of Baryshnikov’s resume. Both he and Rudolph Nureyev were as famous for their defection as they were for their dancing. As a sheltered, upper-middle-class kid I had heard of these guys (I knew Nuryev from The Muppet Show, and I saw Baryshnikov many times in New York), but it occurs to me now that I hadn’t heard of anyone who had defected the other way.
Though Baryshnikov was the one who got top billing in White Nights, I think it is Hines who gives the movie its heart. First of all, Hines is a much better actor. Baryshikov certainly gets the job done (and he’s essentially playing himself anyway), but Hines turns in this fantastic, raw performance. Raymond is a broken man, who never truly managed to escape the memories of what America did to him. His happiness in Siberia is a band-aid on a broken leg. He and his wife Darya have their own tiny theater, and we are treated to a whole number from Porgy and Bess. Did you know Gregory Hines could sing that well? I hadn’t, and his high notes are wicked impressive. It’s a little hilarious that the dialogue is translated into Russian, but the song lyrics are left in English. You can see the life he has carved out for himself, with creativity and performing and a beautiful woman who loves him. When he gets saddled with Kolya, all those unresolved issues about America resurface, and we can see the wound that never really healed.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I always feel like there’s symbolism behind Kolya’s wardrobe. Sure, there’s a scene or two where he’s wearing something you would expect a dancer to be wearing. But the scenes I notice are the ones where they have Baryshnikov doing impressive things, in the most impractical clothes ever. There’s a scene where Ray bets him 11 rubles that Kolya can’t do 11 pirouettes in a row. Of course he does it effortlessly, and it’s even more jaw-dropping when you take a second to notice that he’s doing it in jeans and boots. He also plays the piano reasonably well, which seems a little unfair when you think about how much great DNA he’s already got. A thing I have never understood about ballet dancers is how many of them smoke. I mean, as far as I am concerned, the body of a dancer of that caliber is simply magic, and defies the physical rules we mere mortals have to live by. I’m constantly seeing ballet dancers smoking in movies, and this one is no exception. I don’t know how that works, and I quit years ago, but he smokes throughout the film, and I want to wheeze in sympathy.
So we’ve got our buddy movie thing going on, very ‘80s formulaic in many ways. The two men hate each other at first, but they eventually, reluctantly, bond. The big dance duet is definitely a meeting of the minds, choreography-wise, where they are both doing tap as well as ballet, and they are both pulling it off. A lot of thought was put into the music for this film, as you can imagine, and American music is one of the things they bond over. The big famous Lionel Richie song “Say You, Say Me” that won him the Academy Award only shows up for the end credits, which may have been typical of films at the time, I don’t remember (the song always got on my nerves for being dance-proof anyway—a ballad that goes disco for 8 bars in the middle—what was he thinking?) My favourite was always “Separate Lives”, the ‘80s power duet between Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin.
Kolya finally persuades Galina to tell someone from the American Embassy that he is there. When Raymond discovers that Darya is pregnant, he decides to go with them. He himself may still be less than thrilled with the country of his birth, but he knows that it will be a better place for his kid to grow up. They formulate a plan to get away from the locked penthouse suite in which they are being kept. It’s monitored all the time, and there are guards, but since a male ballet dancer is basically Spider-Man (Baryshnikov, Tom Holland), they make a makeshift zipline, and escape out the window. Raymond winds up staying behind, distracting Chaiko, giving Kolya and Darya time to get away. They meet up with the Americans, and there’s kind of a showdown right outside the American Embassy. Kolya is seen and recognized, but KGB guards are all over Darya, treating everyone at the embassy to a display of Soviet repression. Kolya quickly makes a deal with Chaiko that if Darya is released, he will keep quiet about everything.
We’re not sure how much time passes, but suddenly the white nights are over. Raymond is with Chaiko, under heavy guard, being driven to some remote location. Raymond’s a mess. He was in prison, and looks even more broken than he did before. Chaiko, making one last move to show that he’s got control (and also that he’s a bit of a dick), sends Raymond out into the woods, a firing squad behind him. He thinks he’s about to be shot in the back, but then it turns out that he has crossed the border. Apparently he was traded for someone that the Soviets valued more. Chaiko blusters a bit more about how Raymond is scum and Russia is superior, but you can tell he knows that he was beaten. After a loving reunion with Darya, we get our buddy movie money shot, as Raymond says “I’m going home. For better or worse, I’m going home”. He and Kolya bro-hug, and the camera freezes on them in profile as the credits roll.
Sure, this movie is dated. And when I watched it on VHS back in the day, it’s not like I cared about the Cold War plot beyond it furthering the buddy-ness and the dancing. My daughter got to watch The Hunt For Red October in her Social Studies class when they were studying the Cold War, and I can understand why. Still, I’m going to suggest to her teacher that this one might work too (though strangely, the dancer movie has more profanity in than the one about the Navy). That national rivalry was just as pronounced when seen through the eyes of art as it was when seen from a military perspective. It’s hard to imagine now that, when considering two countries that each could have blown up the planet, that the fate of a ballet dancer would be so relevant. But it was, and could easily be again, though the Cold War is behind us. The long winter may be over, but the white nights linger in the sky, and in the memory.