ROBIN WILLIAMS has been acclaimed for his recent performance in Insomnia, but for me his finest performance will always be in 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson.
Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a saxophonist in the Moscow circus who loves Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. While no dissident, he tells his girlfriend when she recommends he join the Communist Party to obtain a good apartment, "You know I am not a joiner."
In the beginning of the movie Vladimir sees the KGB break up an assembly of three Jews silently protesting Soviet tyranny. The well-dressed thugs take their signs and shove them into a black sedan. People walk by moments later as if nothing occurred.
The circus has a performance planned in New York, but freedom of movement is not a right of the performers. The KGB overseer of the circus, Boris, tells Vladimir when he’s late for rehearsal, "You are late. Maybe you will not go to New York."
Boris instructs the performers on how they are to behave in New York: "When you arrive in New York you must understand that you are representatives of the nation of the revolution. Many people will take perverse pleasure in tempting you with American decadence [freedom?], see you as targets for seduction. Like whores they want you to share their disease [freedom?], their immorality."
On the way home from rehearsal Vladimir runs into a friend he hasn’t seen for awhile. Leonid, a former teacher who now paves streets, protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "They said I was crazy," he tells Vladimir, "so they sent me to a mental hospital."
Vladimir’s grandfather, a war hero, also criticizes the regime. "Lies, tell us more lies," he says the next morning as television propagandists speak of a prosperous Russia. Boris and his sidekick, Yuri, detain Vladimir on the way to rehearsal in the backseat of their black sedan:
YURI: Nicholai Ivanoff is your grandfather?
VLADIMIR: Of course.
BORIS: Your neighbors say he yells anti-Soviet slogans out of the window.
VLAIDMIR: He is an old man.
YURI: Makes rude gestures at people doing their socialist duties.
VLAIDMIR: He is a comedian. He likes mischief.
BORIS: Perhaps he is senile and should go to a mental hospital.
To prevent Nicholai from sharing Leonid’s punishment, Vladimir is to spy on his best friend and fellow performer, Anatoly. Anatoly describes himself as a "bird without wings" and tells Vladimir he plans to defect in New York, which Vladimir doesn’t want to hear about.
But Anatoly can’t muster the willpower to defect once in New York. Instead, the hitherto passive Vladimir defects after seeing his peers’ miserable faces when they are to leave New York.
Boris threatens Vladimir, "You will never again see your parents or your sister. Your grandfather, never." "I defect," he replies.
When a Department of Justice official asks Vladimir why he has defected, "Freedom" is his answer. "Political or artistic freedom?" the official asks. "Freedom," he reiterates.
The remainder of Moscow on the Hudson follows Vladimir’s exile in New York. Memorable scenes during this section include:
- Vladimir goes to a supermarket for coffee and, being used to long ration lines in Moscow, asks a clerk where the coffee line is. The clerk tells him the aisle and adds, "No line, though." Vladimir goes to the aisle and sees row after row of coffee, reading the various brands with increasing emotion. He collapses exclaiming, "Coffee!" (I have been told of similar incidents among exiles from Cuba.)
- Vladimir asks his new girlfriend to move in with him. She doesn’t want to discuss it and asks, "Haven’t you ever felt like not talking about something?" He replies, "Yeah, in Russia that’s permanent way of life."
Moscow on the Hudson will probably never be as popular as Dead Poets Society or Good Morning, Vietnam, but it’s a noble film just the same. Fans of freedom and Robin Williams won’t be disappointed.