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Back in the USSR, dancing under pressure. `White Nights' leaps into a promising start, but trips on its own melodrama

By David Sterritt / November 22, 1985

``White Nights'' must have looked great on the drawing board. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a great dancer and a good actor, plays a character not unlike himself: a Soviet defector who has built a new life and ballet career in the West.

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A plane crash in Siberia plunges him back into the country he fled. There he meets a black American -- a tap-dancer, it so happens -- who defected from the United States during the Vietnam war. Also on hand is a crafty KGB man who'd give anything for the runaway Russian to redefect, and will try any nasty scheme to make it happen.

As story ideas go, this has more than its share of angles: East vs. West, white vs. black, art vs. politics, even classical ballet vs. jazzy tapping. There's also sexual drama, since each dancer has a woman in his life, and the KGB isn't above exploiting both of them to get its way. And the yarn couldn't be more timely, with real-life defection filling the headlines lately.

The movie starts with a wallop, too. First there's a long Baryshnikov dance sequence and then the plane-crash scene, which is electrifying. The filmmakers even add an ironic dimension to the story when they introduce their characters: We meet the classical dancer as he spins through ``Le Jeune homme et la Morte,'' prefiguring the risky pas de deux he's in for with the KGB; and when we first encounter the American, he's treating the Siberian boondocks to a rendition of ``There's a Boat That's Leaving Soo n for New York.'' Little does he know how soon he'll be looking for that boat.

After such a promising start, it's disappointing how soon and how badly the picture goes wrong. But director Taylor Hackford doesn't have the cinematic savvy to balance all those tensions (white vs. black, art vs. politics, and so on) over the long haul. Characters turn into caricatures -- the KGB man positively twinkles with malice -- and motivations get snarled up, especially when the American pulls an abrupt switch and decides he can't wait to see his native shores again. There are reasons for the bi zarre things that happen, but they seem forced. What probably made sense on the drawing board looks flat and facile on the screen. And the sound track doesn't help, with grating disco-type music replacing most of the classical score you might expect in a Baryshnikov picture.

The cast is fun, though. Baryshnikov is a natural for the movies as well as the stage. Gregory Hines is likable, if too low key, as the American tapper. Helen Mirren and Isabella Rossellini make their presences felt even though their roles are far from subtly conceived. On the other hand, I wasn't quite comfortable with the manipulative KGB man, who's played by Jerzy Skolomowski, one of Eastern Europe's best movie directors. He obviously had a terrific time with the part, maybe because he's a Pole with no great reasons to love the Soviet regime. But his mischievous energy (a virtue in itself) combines poorly with the overwritten script, and what could have been incisive political drama sinks into Red-baiting so heavy-handed that it borders on self-parody. `Shoah'

Films dealing with the Holocaust have taken every shape and tone imaginable, from the satire of ``The Great Dictator'' and the melodrama of ``Judgment at Nuremberg'' to the moodiness of ``Our Hitler'' and the passion of ``The Sorrow and the Pity.''

Looking back at such works in all their variety, I tend to agree with the view of cinema scholar Annette Insdorf in her important book, ``Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.'' She has kind words for fiction movies that avoid Hollywood-style packaging in favor of stylization or spareness, as in ``Seven Beauties'' and ``The Boat Is Full,'' respectively. But she reserves her strongest praise for personal documentaries like ``Night and Fog'' and ``The Memory of Justice,'' which seek to ``preserve the

reality of the past while provoking the necessary questions of the present.''