Three Identical Strangers is the true story of scientific overreach and, ultimately, human tragedy.
Three Identical Strangers is a one-of-a-kind documentary that shifts gears and detours so often that, by its end, the winding path we travel leads straight into jaw-dropping revelations, unanswered questions and philosophical debates that stretch back to antiquity. It tells the story of Bobby Shafran, David Kellman and Eddy Galland, identical male triplets separated at birth. They met in their late teens by sheer happenstance and became a cultural sensation in the early ‘80s and regulars in the national news and on talk shows such as “Donahue.” Once reunited, the brothers discovered they shared mannerisms, the same brand of cigarette and a similar taste in women despite having been raised apart. Instantly connected, they fell deeply in fraternal love. It was a recognition akin to staring in a mirror, agape at your reflection passed back at you in triplicate.
This premise alone would make Three Identical Strangers a uniquely heartwarming document. The brothers’ joy at finding each other is infectious, particularly when viewed through home videos of beaming boys tossing a Frisbee and roughhousing in a front yard. And yet, director Tim Wardle is presenting a far more complex, at times sinister, tale. The circumstances surrounding their (as it turns out) purposeful separation—notably to families of differing social and economic classes—is the first sign that something darker, and coldly calculated, may be afoot.
And so, Three Identical Strangers makes its first pivot, away from the novelty of its premise, to the collaboration of a Long Island adoption agency and an Ivy League psychiatric study. We learn Bobby, David and Eddy weren’t the only identical siblings Louise Wise Services separated into different households, unbeknownst to their adoptive parents. Regular home check-ins by academics were conducted along the way, to track the boys’ development and to potentially answer the Freudian question of nature versus nurture and, more fundamentally, the timeless philosophical quandary of free will versus determinism.
That still-unreleased study looms over Three Identical Strangers. The second half of Wardle’s picture brings in celebrated New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright, who’s been covering the story for over two decades, to get to the bottom of things. The result of his investigation is both sickening and, alas, incomplete. But his findings raise new questions, centered on the study’s secretive design and its ramifications on unwitting participants.
What begins with triumph ends with moral outrage. Three Identical Strangers is the true story of scientific overreach and, ultimately, human tragedy. A cabal of well-meaning individuals destroyed lives. And it was all for naught. Few documentaries take you on a rollercoaster ride of elation and despair, and through such regular and surprising hairpin turns. But these thrills come at a high cost, one that sours the cinematic delight Wardle so skillfully depicts early on. Ultimately, we’re left wondering how such a thing could happen in a modern, liberal society. It’s a question that seems more relevant than ever.