The cold war's back, and Hollywood's got it. Rambo muscles his way into Viet Nam and gets to win this time. Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger make every infidel bleed red, white and blue. And now, Mikhail Baryshnikov stars in a parable about a ballet star who eight years ago sought asylum in the West only to plunge into a refugee's nightmare: his plane crash-lands in Siberia, and he's back in the U.S.S.R. Once again, the good guys wear white, the bad guys red.
To be sure, defectors traditionally move west, and no one lately has made a compelling case for the Soviet Union as a Utopia of artistic freedom. But White Nights sails giddily over political realities like the farm animals in a Chagall landscape. When Kolya Rodchenko (Baryshnikov) is "welcomed back" by the KGB, he is put in the custody of Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), a black tap dancer who defected from the U.S. after Viet Nam. Poor Raymond is a neurotic mess; glamorous Kolya has the nimble tread of melancholic star quality. Raymond agonizes about his family back home; Kolya never visits or mentions the family he must have left stranded. Raymond hates U.S. politics, but the disco beat pulsing from Kolya's tape deck calls him home. Good idea, Ray, since the cagey beast from the KGB (Jerzy Skolimowski) hates blacks.
Such detail must seem irrelevant to Director Taylor Hackford; he knows that White Nights will be a hit only if it is seen as an extended music and dance video. With ingenious duplicity, Hackford has worked ten new pop tunes, by Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, among others, into a ballet film set in the U.S.S.R. He has also had the inspiration, radical by the standards of recent musicals, to keep his dancers' feet in the film frame, and to hold a shot long enough to anchor the loping rhythms of Choreographer Twyla Tharp. Hines taps and boogies--and acts--his way out of some preposterous plot contrivances, and Isabella Rossellini and Helen Mirren bring urgent dignity to their satellite roles.
But the show is Baryshnikov's. He might have been embarrassed at having elements of his autobiography drossed into pulp fiction; instead he displays a muscular, ironic elegance. And when he throws himself into an improvisatorial solo to the folk strains of Outcast Singer Vladimir Vysotsky, Baryshnikov creates a tingling explosion of anger, isolation, homesickness and ferocity. Any viewer not wiped out by this dance is hereby excused from the human race. For all its superpower simplifications, White Nights has discovered in Baryshnikov a keen and passionate movie hero. Giggle at the film's naiveté; then feast on Misha and dance down the steppes. --By Richard Corliss