What starts off as a rollicking entertainment ends with a flourish of profundity.
By Neil Giordano
As a child of the New York suburbs during the 1980s, I have vague memories of the trio at the center of the exceptional new documentary Three Identical Strangers. It is the “unbelievable story” of triplets — Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, and Eddy Galland — separated at birth and then reunited at 19 years old by sheer coincidence. The story captivated the airwaves and newspapers for months, and the three gobbled it up as good-looking young men can, looking stylish and virile in their matching Izod polo shirts and poofy hair. They enjoyed their newfound celebrity, but not as much as the fact that they discovered they had identical brothers. It was the perfect made-for-TV story — sensational and wacky beyond belief, but ultimately so heartwarming and almost cloying that you couldn’t help but smile. If reality television had existed in that era, these three guys would fit right into the TLC primetime roster of family-friendly freaks.
The first act of the movie envelops you inside the media extravaganza. You find yourself mimicking the incredulous head shaking and aw-shucks smiles of the studio audience on the Phil Donahue show, circa 1981. The three smoked the same brand of cigarettes! Wow! And so cute, and smiling, and how handsome! This would be enough for a movie in itself, or at least one of the extended local news specials that featured the trio “up close and personal.” The three went on to milk their fame for years after, making a cameo in a Madonna movie (is there anything more ’80s?), opening a nightclub together, and living the good life with the newfound companionship of true brotherhood. But the genius of Three Identical Strangers is that the first act ends, as it always does — in movies and in life — before the drama ventures into places that are even more unbelievable, and then moves even further into oddity, darkness, and finally criminality.
It’s impossible to review Three Identical Strangers without supplying some minor spoilers; not knowing what comes next is part of the pleasure, what generates gasps from moviegoers. Needless to say, all was not right in the boys’ past. Their separation at birth was intentional — engineered in very unexpected ways — and the facts unearthed here go on to implicate not only a renowned Jewish adoption service behind their separation, but also numerous individuals in the New York and national psychiatric research community. The trio’s story rolls forward, inevitably perhaps, toward tragedy, and that bleakness then generates yet more disturbing information about their past.
Three Identical Strangers is the type of documentary in which the subject matter is fascinating enough to easily hold an audience’s attention. The filmmaker could just go along for the ride, perfunctory and competent. But, thankfully, director Wardle’s filmmaking subtly goes about creating as its own meta-story. It weaves a compelling portrait of the trio’s lives, deepening the narrative’s ironic tone with each dramatic chapter — often by re-using identical footage from the free-and-easy first act. With each appearance of the montage of the giddy 19-year-old triplets, the movie pushes further into the abyss after new facts emerge, and the images take on new and more disturbing meanings. The film is an editing tour-de-force, blending home movies, archival footage of the boys’ rise to fame, and contemporaneous interviews with the brothers (and their wives, whose story might make another film altogether) with tangents containing exposition about the history of psychiatric research. Each chapter brings more questions and more surprises, a hall of mirrors of fact, myth, and theory that’s somehow interwoven into a unified whole.
The film’s somber and ruminative final sections invite the viewer to ponder overarching questions — the nature versus nurture debate, the chances of escaping biological ‘fate ‘ — and whether the brothers’ story proves anything one way or another. What starts off as a rollicking entertainment ends with a flourish of profundity that, like so much else in Three Identical Strangers, catches you by surprise.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.