I don’t know if this will turn out great or terrible.
Just imagine you’re walking onto your college campus for the first time as a freshman and everyone passing by says hello. Okay. Maybe you’ve landed at a happy-go-lucky school of friendly co-eds ready to welcome all newcomers to the tribe. But then some say, “I thought you weren’t coming back?” Some of the guys start patting you on the back and some of the girls start kissing you without warning. You wouldn’t be blamed for pinching yourself in hopes this nightmarish dream is exactly that and not some cruel joke of which you’ve unwittingly become the punch line. Finally the only thing to make it real happens: someone calls you by a different name. Suddenly clarity arrives as everything’s revealed to be a simple case of mistaken identity.
Except there’s nothing simple to what happened to Robert Shafran. People didn’t think he was Eddy Galland—they knew he was. So when another student darkened Bobby’s dorm room door with a look of astonishment, the truth could be solved because he knew the person he saw wasn’t his friend despite seeming like a flawless double. A car ride to Long Island later puts Bobby and Eddy face-to-face to learn without a doubt that they were long-lost twins adopted from the same agency to two separate families within a one hundred-mile radius. A newspaper article highlighting this miracle then finds its way into the house of another boy named David Kellman, his eyes gazing upon a black and white photo of himself. You can commence the press tour.
If that reads like a public interest story, it’s because it proved exactly that. Bobby, Eddy, and David went on every television show and conducted every interview thrown their way—the limelight appealing to three nineteen-year olds ready to leverage it into a party-a-night escapade through New York City. So you’d probably assume Tim Wardle‘s documentary Three Identical Strangers would follow suit, bringing this 80s curio back into the public consciousness with updates about their lives and relationship. Well you’d be wrong. And with that I implore you to read no further without having seen the film for yourself because it is a doozy of twists and turns moving from elation to heartbreak to the dark corner of existential dread. Wardle’s film works best if you know nothing.
This fact does knock it down a peg or two because it’s always working backwards to facilitate the same sense of shock and revulsion those involved experienced. I’m generalizing here because the filmmakers do find themselves interviewing someone about these triplets that hadn’t been interviewed before despite possessing new details about the wild, ethically compromised history of what happened six months after their birth. I shouldn’t fault the whole for wanting to craft its reveals for maximum impact, but you do find yourself waiting with baited breath for details intentionally shared out of chronological order. Wardle is prone to hiding excerpts from archival footage to better earn a reaction and you feel those strings throughout. But no amount of artifice could ever overshadow the story at its back.
Wardle dials back the hokey reenactments that helped give Bobby and David’s narrative visual import around halfway through so we can listen to a journalist named Lawrence Wright, the man who stumbled upon a find implicating Dr. Peter B. Neubauer as lead on a secretive psychological experiment wherein those boys were discovered to be its centerpiece. It’s a cloud they still have not been able to get out from under because there’s no possible way to escape the knowledge that your life was orchestrated by a third party for scientific gains no one involved agreed to assist in. We see the distraught looks on Bobby and David’s faces, their easy smiles long since gone as the second chapter of their tale begins with Wright’s unbelievable bombshell.
It’s here that we recognize Eddy’s absence as more than merely the product of disease or accident. We can infer he’s no longer with us since his wife agrees to tell her part, but the circumstances remain a mystery until the moment they can be used to highlight the danger of what was done to the trio. And in his place we meet one of Neubauer’s old research assistants, a woman named Natasha Josefowitz who provides the epitome of pragmatism in contrast to Bobby and David’s passionate incredulity. She raises a very interesting question in hindsight as to whether the moral acceptability of what occurred should render the results as less than a “monumental” case study able to alter the way we think of nature versus nurture forever.
It’s a question we cannot fully answer since Neubauer never published before locking his research away for half a century upon his death. But that doesn’t leave us wanting as far as the subject is concerned. On the contrary, it allows us to bestow our own answer without the trouble of weighing the “greater good” against the wellbeing of humans manipulated against their will. The details are astonishing to fathom with the focal point of the study switching as each new update sheds light upon the precise motivations that went into placing babies within homes that were themselves artificially tainted. The whole is a nightmare scenario protected by influence and money—one an exposé such as this can gradually ensure the victims are supplied some semblance of closure.
And Three Identical Strangers is all the more entertaining and eye opening for it. Without the research to provide concrete numbers, Wardle poses hypotheticals onto his subjects. How did their adoptive parents change who they became? How did their genetics dictate certain choices that brought them to where they find themselves today? The subject of mental health enters the fray and you do quickly see how much deeper the ripples go here in comparison to a social experiment. Neubauer was acting in a way that ensured his subjects would be altered on an emotional and psychological level. He played God, treating every flare-up of potential disaster as a welcome addition to the show rather than a moment to take pause and reevaluate the price being paid.