The tradition of the American musical film is a grand one, reaching back as it does to the great days of Busby Berkeley, of Astaire and Rogers, of Dick Powell and ZaSu Pitts. It suffers from one defect, inherent in its genre: how to find a plausible or at least not risible plot to tie together the songs and dances. In recent years, as audience tastes have grown less sophisticated—less capable of comprehending generic differences and more demanding of simple realism—the musical has fallen on hard times. Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall will play a country singer or a fan who frequents country music bars. Barbra Streisand sang her songs as voice-overs to her characters’ thinking, much as Laurence Olivier did the soliloquies in his Hamlet.

In White Nights Taylor Hackford has returned to the older tradition of musicals, the tradition of fitting the musical numbers into plans for a new show. The context of the show is rather different from the motif we have grown to know and love from the days of Babes on Broadway or Forty-Second Street. Mikhail Baryshnikov is a great Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West’s freedom and wealth; Gregory Hines is a Black American tap dancer who deserted to Russia from our army in Vietnam. Baryshnikov’s flight from London to Tokyo crashlands in Russia. (The plane crash, incidentally, is very well directed. No one who sees what happens to Baryshnikov will ever disobey a stewardess asking us to remain seated until the plane reaches the gate.) KGB agents persuade Hines to lure Baryshnikov into opening the season at the Leningrad theater where his career began. So the two opposites have to live together and work together, their hostility turning into a grudging admiration. At the end, Hines and his Russian wife attempt to escape with Baryshnikov when they learn that she is pregnant; they want their baby to grow up in freedom.

The dancing is very good, set to music ranging from classical to Gershwin to rock. We see Baryshnikov and Hines spotlighted on their own and dancing together. We glimpse vividly important aspects of contemporary Russia: its extremes of wealth and poverty, the oppressive hand of bureaucracy and the secret police, the compromises the artist must make. The plot is a clever variation on tradition, with the opportunity for an exciting climax. Like Hackford’s surprise hit of a summer ago, An Officer and a Gentleman, there is something in the movie for all ages from teenagers on up and for both sexes. Unlike Officer, the cursing is kept to the minimum needed to obtain a PG rating. It is hard to imagine anyone not having a good time at White Nights.

We do not need imagination, however. American reviewers have responded with a hostility which is hard for most viewers to understand. “Rambo-esque,” one reviewer called it. “The Cold War is alive and well in White Nights,” another grumbled. Considering that the most violent scene in the movie is the plane crash and that the American ambassador and his staff are shown as pusillanimous bureaucrats, more interested in avoiding publicity than anything else, it is hard to see what evokes such rage. The movie goes to great lengths to be “even-handed.” The wealth open to a successful defector is mentioned, as is the suffering, personal and professional, of their families and loved ones. Hines explains in a sensational improvisatory tap dance why a young Black performer might want to defect from America at the time of the Vietnam War.

The movie does present the Secret Police’s interests in manipulating performers for the good of the state, and it shows that even under adverse conditions most people opt for freedom over dictatorship. Surely neither of these observations is controversial. We have a police force—albeit not a very effective one—to try to keep people out of America; Russia has an army—and a rather effective one—to keep people in, not to mention the Berlin Wall and a few other inventions. The Soviets didn’t let even a single stray sailor get away, and they spent years in court trying to get a teenage boy back, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union’s selective commitment to parental rights.

“Now I don’t mind their taking sides and standing up for things that they believe in,” like Merle Haggard. The moviegoer rather wishes, however, that the reviewers of White Nights would show a little more discretion. Surely a clever but innocuous variation on a traditional Hollywood genre is better treated with a grin or a yawn. Instead, it makes them angry. Why? We can all understand why the Soviet government does not like White Nights. Now I am not asserting that the film reviewers of America are Communists. I just wonder, with Mr. Sobran, what they would do differently if they were.


[White Nights; Produced and directed by Taylor Hackford; From a story by James Goldman; United Artists]