'Three Identical Strangers' Fascinates, But Doesn't Go Far Enough

Aug 3, 2018

At the start of Three Identical Strangers, Bobby Shafran seats himself in front of a mottled blue background and looks straight at the camera – he’s like a witness about to confess. He assures us that the story he’s about to tell is true, even though if he weren’t the teller he wouldn’t believe it. He’s not lying on either count – his story has plenty of texture and plenty of mood changes, and by the end it leaves you stunned that people who claim good intentions could treat other people so callously.

Shafran is 56 at the time of filming; he was 19 when some facts of his life slapped him in the face. Through a bizarre series of events, Bobby Shafran discovered that he was actually one of a set of triplets who had been separated early in life and adopted out to three different families. One of his brothers had gone to the same college Bobby attended shortly afterwards. Students greeted him like an old friend, until he eventually figured out he was a twin. He found his brother David Kellman, and then the two of them tracked down the third – Eddy Galland.

At first the movie goes playful with the brothers and others talking about amusing similarities among the three, and then things turn darker as the film reveals details about the separation of the brothers and the adoptions.

The world faces serious problems about the confusions of truth and lies, so documentary films that claim truth have to be clear about what they’re doing. Too many naïve filmmakers think that to make a documentary you point the camera and restage some events. That’s the bind that director Tim Wardle chooses. He sets scenes with music that have the feel of fiction. As Bobby Shafran describes going a hundred miles an hour on the New York State Thruway to meet his brother David, feet stomp on the pedals of a car, a hand shifts gears. You get the idea of rushing, but it’s fictional and distracting. The movie cuts to shots of traffic or crowded streets in Manhattan, or shots of the ocean, and none of these bear on the matter of the documentary.

The style suggests that director Wardle doesn’t trust his material. The film has potent archival footage and photo imagery. It looks as if the three young men were on every talk show in television, and you can see how for a while they reveled in their celebrity and their sense of show business. They appear dressed identically; they answer questions in unison, like backup singers for a rock band. Yet, the fun starts to look contrived, and over time, photos, home movies and recent footage show the damage they suffered. 

Three Identical Strangers doesn’t need the manipulative music or the reenactments, and Tim Wardle is no Errol Morris, who has always understood how to use fictional elements to sharpen the notion of truth and to make truth itself an object of search instead of an easy given.

Three Identical Strangers reports the surface of the situation. It illuminates the smug injustice visited on these human beings, and a few other pairs of twins brought into the film. In the ‘50s, some researchers investigated the nature/nurture question – how much of personality or behavior is inherited and how much is shaped by environment. Some researchers were willing to separate twins and triplets; these three were spied upon and interviewed without their knowledge. Bobby says they were guinea pigs; David says lab rats – and there were serious and unhappy consequences for these men who were denied knowledge of who they are, their family backgrounds – and, of course the fact that they were set up for a heartless experiment without their permission.

But Three Identical Strangers doesn’t ask the next level of questions. A richer film might look beyond what people say, to what they dream and what drives them.