A reunion, whether expected or a surprise, can be a wonderful and inspirational thing. Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that provides that sensation early, thanks to its linear presentation of a bizarre true story. However, while news coverage can highlight the extraordinary elements of an interesting story that results in some genuine good feelings, taking a step further can often reveal something more intricate at play. This is precisely what director Tim Wardle examines in this film, which recounts the story of a former news sensation that was actually the product of a drastic attempt to justify actions taken by certain individuals.
Having a bare outline of what to expect going in, I feel there’s a need to hold back certain details. What matters are the basics – In 1980, at age 19, Bobby Shafran learned that he had a twin brother out there. This was Eddy Galland. The two were both in New York and managed to meet. Their story went to the newspapers, and a third brother appeared. This was David Kellman. It turns out, these were triplets separated at birth, only to be united 19 years later. What a crazy story, right? However, taking a couple of steps back, one also must wonder how something like this could have happened.
There’s a big, complicated story to tell regarding the actual circumstances and Wardle does his best to keep it all contained to a 90-minute doc. Given the nature of the truth, it means balancing some lighthearted, biographic storytelling with a more sinister story about what was at the root of all of this. It’s a bit much at times, but never overwhelming. Given the inherently cinematic nature of the story, it’s just a shame that the truth has a lot of tragedy behind it, as far as these brothers are concerned.
Regarding the filmmaking on display, there’s plenty to admire. Shafran recounts much of what happened, while a dramatized staging of the events plays out to open the film. It’s good fun, whether or not you know where things are headed. Kellman gets involved as well, allowing two of the brothers to go through their experiences in a manner that suggests they’ve done this plenty but can still work in their personalities enough to make a multi-part chronicling of their lives seem fascinating.
Others speak up as well, including family members, friends, journalists, and some other notable figures. Thanks to all of the news coverage, there’s plenty of archival footage to comb through, let alone home videos, photos, and even a clip from the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan, which the brothers were able to score a small cameo in at the peak of their fame. Three Identical Strangers works as a “greatest hits” take on this set of triplets, which gradually shifts into a conspiracy thriller featuring very pleasant people.
Without getting into the “why” of it all, I will say the other element of this film concerns the nature of growing up in different homes, instead of with each other. Balancing the idea of what sort of similarities these triplets share against what it is that separates them becomes an interesting route to take but appropriate, given where the story moves us. For all the fun that is had watching clips of these brothers on daytime talk shows, there’s an undercurrent of sadness Warble is also trying to explore through the presentation of this doc.
An ethical question becomes the primary focus towards the end of the film, which becomes a bit too repetitive, but has understandably chosen to side with the brothers. We end up hearing these men reflect on where they had come from with a mix of happiness as far as who they are and violation as far as what’s behind it. The wild thing is that there is still more of a journey for them to take in their lives.
Still, even if this story ends up being more about making a point than having a true conclusion, Three identical Strangers has plenty going for it. The construction of this film allows for surprises to take place in a manner fit for cinematic interpretation, even if it happens to be true. Presenting the story through the brothers and others involved keeps it all engaging. Whether or not there’s some familiarity with this story, seeing a whole doc that effectively manages to bring it all together makes the story of the triplets stand out in a way that brings a new angle to what was at one time a unique phenomenon to celebrate.