Three Identical Strangers a Manipulative Documentary

Three Identical Strangers (2018)
Directed by Tim Wardle
Neon Films, 96 minutes, PG-13

In the 1980s, TV schlock journalist Geraldo Rivera hosted several sensationalist "news" specials, most infamously the opening of Al Capone's safe and a purser's safe salvaged from the Titanic before international laws were passed to forbid such desecrations. In each case, Rivera oversaw a breathless vicarious strip tease that went on for two hours and revealed: nothing! Rivera soon became a national joke and those shows are now considered mindless detritus.

I mention this because watching Three Identical Strangers is much the same in feel. It has been praised to the skies, but don't believe a word of the hype; this is a failed documentary that manipulates subjects, viewers, and history.

Director Tim Wardle has intriguing material, but ultimately he misses the real story by miles. He follows the saga of Eddy Galland, Robert Shafron, and David Kellerman, three young men on the cusp of 20 trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Individual plans are interrupted when Robert ("Bobby") shows up for his first day of classes at Sullivan Community College and everyone seems to know him. Bobby knew that he was adopted, but this was his first inkling that he had a twin (Eddy)—or so he thought. Newspaper coverage reached David Kellerman, who also turned out to be a blood brother. The triplets united and became instant media sensations. Soon the lads dressed alike, were guest on talk shows, and were seldom out of camera range. They were, in journalistic terms, human-interest stories. In psychological terms, though, their individuality was sacrificed for an orchestrated collective mind.

All of this satisfied public longing for heartwarming tales. The boys hammed it up for the salivating masses and played the part of living carbon copies. Under the public gaze they moved alike, had similar likes, similar experiences, the same haircuts, and similar dislikes. They finished each other's sentences and enjoyed confounding those who tried to tell them apart. But then—if we are to believe this documentary's arc—the tale turned darker. Who was their mother? Why were the boys separated at birth? Why were they never told they were triplets? Why was each placed in a home that had, two years earlier, adopted daughters? Most intriguing, why were their adoptive families so different? One was raised in a blue-collar home, one in a middle-class family, and one in a professional household of substantial means.

Wardle—working from revelations unearthed by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright in 1995—takes us down what we are intended to see as a dark cave. The boys were all placed by the Louise Wise Agency, a Jewish adoption network, shortly after their births in 1961. The placement families were not random; they were arranged by a team headed by Dr. Peter Neubauer (1913-2008), a famed Austrian-born Freudian psychiatrist. Neubauer hoped to crack psychology's toughest nut: nature versus nurture. He also hoped to shed light on what is sometimes shorthanded as the life chances conundrum: the degree to which social class determines a child's future. Queue some horrendous stereotypical music that's heavy on ominous tones. Were the lads in fact lab rats? Was any of this ethical? Is this, as one of triplets says, "Nazi shit?"

Spoiler: the answers are yes, yes, and no. Shame on Wardle for making a Geraldo Rivera-like film that seeks to villainize Neubauer and wrench cheap emotions from viewers that hide the fact that his inferences are a combination of anachronism and manufactured drama. As in the case of several current movements, Wardle condemns the past through the values of the present. None of what Neubauer did would be approved today—a major reason why his study was not published and his research notes are closed—but his inquiry was cutting edge stuff in 1961. Indeed, Freudian psychiatry was all the rage then, but is now decidedly out of fashion. Still, none of what he did was Josef Mengele stuff; Neubauer was also Jewish and he and his family fled Austria when the Germans invaded it. Ethics should not be viewed as on par with the laws of gravity; they are infinitely more malleable and changeable.

Again, Wardle missed the real stories. There's a great tale to tell about how coverage of the triplets presaged reality TV. There's another to be told about how post-Watergate journalistic practices declined by blurring the line between news reporting and paparazzi stalking. He even misses the fact that his subjects didn't fit the life chances mold! Toward the end of the film we learn that both differences and darker back stories were undersold for the sake of mirror-like sameness and easy-to-digest uplift, but Wardle's treatment of this is the film coda equivalent of a drive by shooting. Nature or nurture? Wardle makes an attempt to resolve this, but it feels like Geraldo opening a safe. Think of the multiple meanings of "safe," because this is a film for 2018 that imposes itself upon 196os and 1980s.

Rob Weir


Unknown said...

The elephant in the room is the fact we are not given a key historical fact: what would have been the standard treatment of twins or triplets for adoption in the US at the time? There are 2 options:
1. They would have been offered for adoption together. Unlikely, but if this was the case, the movie did a reasonable analysis of the ethics of it all
2. Twins and triplets used to be split and handed to adopting families without the knowledge of the babies being twins or triplets babies, as a default practice in those days. If that is the case, it makes the research study an observational, rather than interventional one, and far from the ethical horror the movie depicts. If this is the case, the movie is a cruel manipulation of the facts and no less than defemation.
It seems strange that this key question, let alone it's answer, are not provided in the movie. I don't know which of the above 2 options is true. I wonder, though, whether this important omission was not accidental, in which case the movie is actually a very unfair manipulation of facts at the expense of those who can no longer defend themselves.

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