In Three Identical Strangers, director Tim Wardle tells an extraordinary and troubling story without diving below the surface excitement of its twists: The documentary is all plot at the expense of character and atmosphere. Which is a shame, as Wardle’s subjects—triplets, separated at birth, who united via a coincidence in 1980 when they were 19—are fascinating. Wardle opens on a contemporary interview with Bobby Shafran, who tells us of his first day at a small community college in New York, where he’s greeted by students as if he’s already an established member of the crowd. The students are mistaking Bobby for Eddy Galland, who went to the school earlier and who turns out to be Bobby’s brother. The story becomes a national news item, and then David Kellman sees a paper and notices his uncanny resemblance to the brothers.
Bobby, Eddy, and David were given up for adoption as babies and separated, dispersed over a 100-mile radius, and raised in contrasting social spheres. Bobby was taken in by an affluent family, with a father who was devoted and successful but often absent due to the demands of working as a doctor. Eddy was brought up in a middle-class household with a strict father, while David was adopted by a lovable and extroverted immigrant family for whom English was a second language. David appears in Three Identical Strangers shortly after Bobby’s introduced, and the men respectively speak of their reunion, though Wardle spreads their interviews disappointingly thin, cluttering the film with reenactments and alternating between other members of the families as well as reporters and other professionals. Eddy is conspicuously missing, seen and heard only in archive footage, and so even audiences unacquainted with the story are primed to anticipate tragedy.
The precision of the disparity between Bobby, Eddy, and David’s childhoods is as remarkable as the way they found one another, indicating a neat illustration of the way America was once loosely governed by a three-class system. Too neat, it turns out, as this contrast is an indication of the film’s biggest secret, which Wardle springs with a glee that’s reminiscent of tabloids. Wardle revels in the lurid peaks of his narrative and nearly ignores significant emotional contours. The brothers are good-looking young men when they reunite, and so they use their fame to do New York City right at the height of the city’s pre-gentrified excess, becoming fixtures at Studio 54 and other legendary spots. This collision of cultures—in which three sheltered boys get to sample the fruits of fame—might be enough to power an entire film, but Wardle reduces this incident to a montage lasting a handful of minutes.
The missed opportunities pile up throughout the film. Flush with youth, fame, and the exhilaration of meeting one another, Bobby, Eddy, and David get an apartment together, priming one to wonder what it would be like for them to live with brothers they never knew they had. Wardle’s curiosity in such matters proves to be merely rhetorical. Later in the film, the brothers open a restaurant called Triplets that starts out smashingly well only to cripple their relationship. What happened? They’re said to have different work styles and Wardle unforgivably accepts that generality as a sufficient explanation.
Three Identical Strangers is eventually revealed to pivot on matters of nature versus nurture, as the triplets were part of an experiment. Bobby, Eddy, and David were consciously separated and placed in families of disparate backgrounds, and their story leads to the discovery of other such cases. Perpetrators of this experiment are connected to a vast American political infrastructure, and successfully bury the results of their endeavors, allowing the story to be largely forgotten. This is an astonishing revelation, reminiscent of certain Nazi experiments, which is ironic, as the scientist heading the experiment was a Holocaust survivor. Yet Wardle doesn’t do the perversity and the social resonance of this reveal justice, failing to differentiate the brothers from a few Wikipedia-friendly bullet points. Imagine David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers if it were leached of its terrifying psychological stagnancy and fused with a rapid-fire CNN story. (CNN is a presenter of this film.)
Wardle keeps one hooked with an endless rush of exposition, and Bobby and David arise as poignant everymen who’re caught up in the gears of a vast conspiracy. If only they’d been allowed to speak of their lives at length. David investigates the experiment late in the documentary, with Wardle shooting him as he calls the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, though this proves to be another moment that’s cut short for the sake of filmic momentum. David says he feels like a “lab rat,” and that phrase stings, connoting an existential crisis that Wardle allows to hang in the air.