A plane crash in Siberia lands a Soviet defector in the hands of the KGB. Only with the help of an American defector will he escape. [ White Nights credits: Dir: Taylor Hackford/ Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Isabella Rossellini, Helen Mirren, Geraldine Page/ 135 min/ Thriller, Musical-Dance/ Escape from Socialism, Anti-War]
When White Nights was released in 1985, before the demise of the Soviet system, it was panned by some critics for being too antisocialist. Given post-glasnost revelations about poverty and oppression under Soviet socialism, that complaint is even more laughable now than it was at the time. In any case, the Soviet defector at the center of this story knows what it’s like to live in a “workers’ paradise.” That’s why he’s so desperate to hide his identity when his plane crash-lands in the U.S.S.R. He’s afraid that if the officials there figure out that he was once a famous Soviet ballet dancer, now defected to the U.S., they’ll reclaim him as a citizen. And indeed that’s just what happens.
The KGB immediately sets him up with a “host family”—made up of an American tap dancer who earlier defected to the Soviet Union and his Russian wife. It’s their job to convince him to dance professionally again for the Soviets. If he refuses, all three of them will be in serious trouble. However, even if agrees to dance, his ultimate future in the Soviet Union is bleak. He has only one hope: escape.
This film is an unremitting blast at the Soviet system, but it doesn’t limit itself to that. It also takes a shot at military conscription. It does so through the character of the American defector, a former soldier and draftee, who reveals in an emotional moment that he defected out of disillusionment with the Vietnam War and in order to escape being forced to kill or be killed. By allying the two defectors, one who fled socialism and one who fled conscription, there is drawn an unmistakable parallel in the treatment of citizens, by governments, as mere property.
Even apart from all this favorable content, this is a terrific film. It has an exciting story. It has some remarkable dancing. It’s artfully directed. And above all it has one of the best casts ever assembled. Baryshnikov, himself a Soviet ballet dancer who defected in 1974, was an ideal choice to play the lead; Gregory Hines is the tap-dancing American defector; Isabella Rossellini is his beautiful wife; Helen Mirren is Baryshnikov’s former lover; and the feisty Geraldine Page is the Soviet defector’s manager. Also notable is Jerzy Skolimowski, who plays the part of the evil KGB chief. In an odd coincidence, he’s a near dead ringer for Pat Buchanan, especially when he smiles.
White Nights is one of my favorite escape-from-socialism films. Part song and dance, part thriller, it succeeds as both and serves as well to dramatize the oppressive nature of authoritarian government.