Mikhail Baryshnikov's star quality is undeniable; nevertheless it's hard to imagine a movie more hapless and uninvolving than "White Nights," a clarion call for artistic freedom that leaves you wondering, "If this is what artistic freedom gets us, who'd fight to defend it?"
The title refers to the time of year in northern Russia when the sun doesn't set, presumably so the movie's night scenes could be filmed during the day, which is cheaper. "White nights" certainly don't have much to do with the story, which involves a defector, Nikolai (Baryshnikov), who returns unwillingly to his homeland when, en route to Tokyo, his plane crashes in the Siberian wasteland.
That's a great idea for a movie, but director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman") doesn't pursue it. Instead, the evil Colonel Chaiko (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) decides to place Nikolai in the custody of Raymond (Gregory Hines), an American tap dancer who, years ago, had himself defected -- to the Soviet Union -- and who has since run afoul of the regime. The focus shifts from one defector to the other; and what had promised to be a psychological thriller, and a variation on the "fish out of water" story, becomes instead a particularly muddy buddy movie.
There's no movement in the story. Nikolai starts out an adamant opponent of the Soviet system and stays that way; Raymond quickly breaks down in drunken, tearful regret over his decision, and his regret doesn't change, it just deepens. You never feel that Nikolai might decide to abandon America, or that Raymond wouldn't return home, given the chance. So "White Nights" becomes a tiresome exercise in the mechanics of escape, in which Russian security is breached, of course, by guards who drink too much vodka and play too much chess.
Lord knows we don't need another Kitchen Debate, but the movie's argument against America (Raymond decamped when Vietnam disillusioned him) is simply a straw man, and its diatribe against the Soviet Union peculiarly airless. "White Nights" gives us the extremes of Soviet repression, but the movie gives you no feeling for totalitarianism in its daily form, no texture of what it's like to actually live there. It's a movie about Russia that might have been written out of the back issues of Reader's Digest.
The only Russian we get to know is Chaiko, who's not just a KGB spy but a bully, a lecher and a racist to boot. In short, he's a cartoon, and Skolimowski plays him that way -- he narrows his eyes, struts in menacing circles, balls up his chin like a fist, nods constantly in self-agreement and frequently seems to be sucking on his own face in an annoying display of preening arrogance that makes Whitey Herzog seem like Robert Young.
Skolimowski's no actor, but for some reason, Hackford has chosen to rely on nonactors generally, with similar results. As Raymond's Russian wife, fashion model Isabella Rossellini is a disaster -- the woman is supposed to be a former top Soviet translator, but Rossellini plays her as a dodo, all mute skittishness and bug-eyed irritation. There seems no point in casting a gorgeous nonactress like Rossellini, and then costuming and coiffing her to look mousy -- you lose on both ends. Rossellini's incompetence, unfortunately, is nothing compared to Hines', whose performance seems to come with its own outtakes. There's something about his sleepy eyes, his mewling delivery, that can suck the energy out of every scene he's in.
Hines, of course, was cast for his dancing, which is unexceptional. "White Nights" was choreographed by Twyla Tharp, whose work, for some reason, has never translated to the screen; there's also an opening sequence choreographed by Roland Petit, "additional choreography" by Baryshnikov and something called "tap improvography" by Hines -- the result is a muddle.
"White Nights" ignores even the obvious opportunity of a set-piece of dueling styles, Hines' tap versus Baryshnikov's ballet; instead, it comes up with a modern dance hybrid, replete with incomprehensible martial arts motifs, that stacks Hines against Baryshnikov in Misha's arena, a comparison that only makes Hines seem clumsy. Hackford's dance photography is better than the blender-edited quick-cutting we've come to expect -- the sequences are shot mostly with long traveling shots following the performers. But his tendency to zoom into close-ups of the dancers' feet is nearly as bad, a kind of editing-within-the-frame. It reduces a dancer to the point where he touches the ground, when we really want to imagine him transcending gravity.
Which is exactly what Baryshnikov does. It's hard to tell at this point what range Baryshnikov has as an actor (in "White Nights" he's essentially playing himself), but he can be delightfully mischievous chewing on a cigarette, magnetic in the way his eyes seem to wow in and out of their sockets in a moment of anger. He holds the screen in repose.
In motion he's magical -- while his dancing is spectacular, even his walk strikes you as a kind of vindication of the human form. Leaping, cavorting, striking a pose, sliding on a wish, Baryshnikov isn't just graceful -- he's in a state of grace.