Separated at birth
Not every successful documentary needs to be a The Act of Killing-style reinvention of the genre. Sometimes a fascinating story well told is enough to captivate the viewer, as in the case of Tim Wardle’s gripping Three Identical Strangers. Wardle builds his narrative from the standard documentary kit of recycled news clips, overly composed talking heads and fuzzy reenactments, but the unbelievable true-life tale that he tells is insane, disturbing and irresistible enough to overwhelm any formal banality.
In 1980, teenager Robert Shafran arrived for his first day at a small community college in upstate New York, where people he had never met warmly greeted him as “Eddy.” It turned out that Eddy Galland was a former student at the school, and that the similarities between Robert and Eddy went deeper than their identical faces, voices and builds—they were twin brothers separated at birth and adopted out of the Louise Wise Agency by different Jewish families.
When New York resident David Kellman read that already astonishing story in the pages of Newsday, it grew even more astonishing. Kellman saw two doppelgangers who shared his birthday and adoption agency and realized that he was the third sibling, and the separated twins became separated triplets. All three estranged brothers were ecstatically reunited, with everyone marveling at their shared mannerisms and bizarre similarities.
The triplets’ tale turned them into tabloid talk show sensations and flash-in-the-pan celebs. They shared a bachelor pad in New York City, opened a tourist trap restaurant called Triplets and made cameo appearances opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. Their story may seem completely bonkers, almost like a feverish work of pulp fiction, but you ain’t heard nothing yet.
It turns out some of the coincidences surrounding the separated triplets weren’t so coincidental, and that there were more sinister forces at play, including a powerful charity organization with a strong motive to cover up the truth. Much like David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s underrated 2016 documentary Tickled, what starts out as viral media-ready fluff eventually transforms into a story about powerful people exploiting the powerless without any fear of consequence.
Beyond the medical ethics aspect, though, the real thematic thrust of Three Identical Strangers lies in the time-dishonored debate about the role of nature versus nurture in the field of human development. The media seized on the many superficial similarities of the separated triplets, like shared cigarette brands and a mutual background in wrestling, but stark differences between the brothers emerged the more time they spent together.
Three Identical Strangers is far from perfect—the interviews with the surviving players feel a little too perfect, almost scripted, and Wardle does a weak job of developing the triplets as individual characters. Without that differentiation, the moment when Three Identical Strangers finally arrives at its closing argument in the nature vs. nurture debate becomes emotionally muted and somewhat glib. However, those minor defects are not enough to counteract the potency of this thoroughly entertaining film.