White Nights: Another Anti-Communist Classic

Samuel Johnson, the great English writer, once said: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

That pronouncement was framed perfectly by Michael Nollet’s two wonderful lists of Hollywood’s “anti-Communist” movies.  

However, noticeably absent from Nollet’s well-researched lists was White Nights, a 1985 American film that for many of us was a powerful instruction on “the evil empire” which by that time was both tragically and blessedly on a precipice.  

White Nights begins with a commercial aircraft flying over Siberia toward Tokyo, where one of its passengers, ballet dancer Nikolai “Kolya” Rodchenko (played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who in real life had defected from the USSR to Canada 11 years earlier) is to perform.  In a harrowing sequence that was filmed using real Boeing jets, the plane develops electrical problems and has to crash land.  Kolya runs to the lavatory to destroy his “papers,” but is knocked unconscious upon impact.

Alas, the Russian runaway is hospitalized, and comes to the attention of KGB Colonel Chaiko, who hatches a plot to earn Gorbachevian brownie points by getting the “repatriated” Kolya to Leningrad, where the once-famous danseur can dance with the pride-of-the-state Kirov Ballet Theatre.  To assist, the officer recruits both ballerina Galina Ivanova (played by the half-Russian Helen Mirren) an old flame of Kolya’s whom he abandoned upon defection, as well as an American émigré, tap dancer, and Vietnam draft resister Raymond Greenwood (deftly portrayed by Gregory Hines) who is married to a Soviet woman (Isabella Rossellini in her first American film role).  As Chaiko tells Greenwood: “It's much better to work in the theater... than in a mine.”

As Kolya Rodchenko finds himself again caged, there are inevitable poignant moments, notably when he sees a group of young girls in a ballet class practicing near his upper-story apartment.  Risking much to climb along the rooftop to practically stumble through a window onto their practice floor, Kolya is shocked when the ballerinas scream and run to the protection of a horrified teacher.  He realizes that instead of recognizing him for the Soviet ballet superstar he once was, these girls have grown up on history books where his name was erased, post-defection.

Initially, Raymond doesn’t trust Kolya, and they have to warm to each other.  Here is an amusing scene that hints what an astonishing talent Baryshnikov in his prime was.   Galina has different issues with her former inamorato, summarized in this bit of dialogue:

Galina: “When they told me you had defected to the West, they couldn't believe that you would leave without telling me. I couldn't believe it either.”

Kolya: “I'm sorry.”

Galina: “They took away my passport. For four years I wasn't allowed to travel. And for three years, they would take me to the big house to answer their questions. Every day, the same, stupid questions!”

Kolya: “You answered well. You're an important person, with power. I hear you drive a Mercedes now.”

Galina: “And what do you ride, Kolya? A donkey? Yes, I rebuilt my life! I was supposed to throw everything away so that you could live in Disneyland?”

Long story short: Raymond finds out his wife is pregnant, and comes to realize that whatever he thought of Uncle Sam postwar his native land offers much better prospects for his future child than the USSR.  In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy also knows that naturalized American Kolya is in captivity, and is launching a manhunt tempered by the environment in which they must operate.  (At one point when Galina is questioning his heritage Kolya responds: “I’m still Russian. I’m just not Soviet.”)  Without spoiling the plot, it can be said that White Nights seems to obliquely borrow from The Sound of Music, but with unique plot twists.

While White Nights isn’t a musical, it did boast an excellent soundtrack.

White Nights was in the select fraternity of Academy Award nominated films to have not just one but multiple “Best song” nominees, in this case, “Say you, Say me” (Lionel Richie, the 1985 category winner) along with “Separate Lives” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin (written by Stephen Bishop, of both “On and on” and “Animal House” (!) fame).  Each of those songs reached #1 in the U.S. popular music charts.

The rest of the soundtrack for this film combines a callaloo of music stars including Lou Reed, Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack.  Check out this scene where Kolya and Raymond pretend to berate each other (after agreeing in secret to attempt an escape) before the ever-present security cameras, then launch into a dance duet where both men’s talents shine.  The song here, an edgy number called “Prove Me Wrong” that’s somewhere between post-New Wave and “Flashdance,” is actually by David Pack, former lead singer of the 1970s midnight love balladeers Ambrosia.

Finally, though, an argument could be made that the most powerful song in the film isn’t on the actual Atlantic Records soundtrack, yet is paired with Baryshnikov’s most unforgettable performance therein.  The song is “Capricious Horses”, sung with the vodka-cured voice of Vladimir Vysotsky (with a rough translation of the lyrics found here).  The dance: strictly Baryshnikov’s, as his Kolya is, at the deserted performance hall, about to confirm his suspicion that his one-time love is working for Col. Chaiko.

It’s been decades and I’m still mesmerized by this scene.

A full viewing of this year’s “Chernobyl” tells much about what the Soviet Union of the mid-80s had descended to.  So does White Nights, released squarely in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and one year before the actual Chernobyl disaster. I’d recommend watching Baryshnikov, Hines and company just for their incredible work, if not for the pregnant moment in history which they momentarily occupied.

Kurt Wayne is the founder of A-B-P Ministries and Pornografia Destroí, which are devoted to fighting pornography, prostitution, sex trafficking and the culture which feeds them in the nations of Angola, Brazil and Portugal.