Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that’s ideas get bigger and bolder with every passing minute. For the most part, it works. By the end, the film is pontificating on the very question of what makes us who we are. What shapes our personality: inherited traits or our surroundings? The “nature vs. nurture” question has been around for centuries. The men at the center of the movie, a set of triplets, offer a tantalizing view into that question. The who and how at the root of their unique situation is also an important, disturbing part of the story. Documentarian Tim Wardle delves into it with a humanistic approach, and what he uncovers is shocking. The questions his film poses about the banality of evil, and the ease with which people use the cover of “scientific discovery” to excuse their actions, is equal parts fascinating and revolting.
Three Identical Strangers begins as a whimsical look back at the minor media phenomenon in the early 1980s that surrounded three young men who discovered they were identical triplets. It all started with a guy named Bobby, and his first day attending a community college in New York state. Multiple people mistook Bobby for someone named Eddie. Finally, a friend of Eddie’s – who couldn’t believe the resemblance between his friend and Bobby – offered to introduce the two men. A newspaper reporter heard about the miraculous meeting and wrote a human-interest story about the twins who, separated at birth, found each other decades later.
The story becomes even more incredible when a third man, David, who looks just like Bobby and Eddie, read the article. The twins became triplets. They were each adopted from the same agency, and their adoptive parents were never told of the existence of the other siblings. The three men enjoyed the limelight; they appeared together in numerous television interviews and they even opened a restaurant in the late 80s called, naturally, Triplets.
Wardle has fun with this opening act of his documentary. He restages Bobby’s first day of school and the fateful first meeting between Bobby and Eddie in a way that’s reminiscent of Errol Morris’s style. If there’s a weakness to Three Identical Strangers, it’s that Wardle has a little too much fun with the premise. He goes out of his way, through both the reenactments and archival interview footage, to stress just how alike Bobby, Eddie, and David are. It does serve a purpose, but not before the copious amount of time spent on the siblings’ similarities begins to feel like padding. It feels like a way for Wardle, before he moves on to the film’s more engrossing themes, to stretch his documentary to feature length.
When Wardle does move past the more light-hearted angle of the story, what he uncovers is stranger than anything in a Hollywood movie. One reenactment in particular speaks to this. The adoptive parents of the triplets decide to visit the adoption agency to demand answers about how this could have happened. They leave without much more information than when they came, but one member of the group sees something odd.
The meeting takes place during a rainstorm, and as they are leaving the agency building, one of the parents turns around because he has forgotten his umbrella. As he retrieves it, he looks into the room where the meeting has just taken place and he sees the board members of the adoption agency seemingly celebrating with a bottle of champagne. It’s as if they’ve gotten away with something. Wardle stages moments like this to dig deeper into the mystery at the heart of Three identical Strangers. The technique is successful in drawing us along with him on this strange journey.
A clandestine twin study scratches just the surface of what the documentary reveals. In fact, this isn’t the first time the study has been covered in the media. Two other unwitting participants in the study, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, wrote a memoir a decade ago, titled Identical Strangers, about their own experiences meeting each other. Just last year filmmaker Lori Shinseki released an hour-long documentary about the triplets called The Twinning Reaction. Neither of those efforts had the funding or exposure of Three Identical Strangers. You’ll have to pardon my getting sidetracked on an observation about our sexist society, but perhaps it’s because a man wasn’t behind either one. Wardle obtained funding from CNN for his film, and it’s been one of the most talked about documentaries of the year so far.
To be fair, Three Identical Strangers does deserve the praise it has received from critics. The real power of the movie comes not in just the revelations about the study itself, but in how it affected everyone it touched. The profound emotions that the triplets experienced as a result of finding each other is moving. Even more moving is the film’s chronicling of Bobby and David’s attempts to obtain records from the study that were supposed to remain sealed until the year 2066.
The most horrifying moments come as Wardle tracks down and interviews a few of the researchers who collaborated with Peter Neubauer, the child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who devised the study. Neubauer himself escaped Austria during World War II, so it’s confounding that decades later he would implement such a study. It’s a powerful moment when one of the triplets describes his initial reaction to learning what Neubauer did to him as “some Nazi shit.”
Wardle uses a lot of supposition to intuit the ultimate purpose of the study. This causes a kind of scattershot effect. It allows Three Identical Strangers to contemplate not only ideas like nature vs. nurture, but also mental illness, scientific ethics, and even whether humans truly have free will or if we are just prisoners of our own genetic makeup. That makes for a film that isn’t exactly cohesive, but is fascinating nonetheless.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Three Identical Strangers is pretty engrossing stuff. I was charitable in the main review and didn't mention how a more cynical viewer might be tempted to call Wardle's emphasis on the brothers' minor celebrity status exploitative. I don't think it is, but it does go on for too long. Every other issue he examines, though, he does in a thought provoking and contemplative way.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The psychologists Wardle interviews are truly creepy. Has anyone told members of this profession that when they read notes about their subjects (which are, you know, human beings), they sound as if they are describing the actions of rats or monkeys? These moments in particular gave me the willies.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I was beginning to wonder if including this section might have been a bad idea. For the most part, the audiences I've been in lately have been well-behaved. I've had to make a switch to describing how the crowds have reacted to the movie.
My audience for Three Identical Strangers restored my faith that I should keep this section, and that it is properly named.
There were three or four very drunk frat/bro dudes seated in my row who felt the need to get up halfway through the movie to purchase more beer. I could smell the alcohol on them when they passed by on their way out. Seriously, who gets tanked and thinks, "Let's go see a documentary,"?!? Also, if you just can't resist getting up to get an adult beverage in the middle of the movie, please don't feel the need to profusely apologize to me as you make your way back to your seat. Just STFU and get out of my way.
There were also two people (a middle-aged married couple, from what I could tell) sitting right in front of me who acted as if they had never before been to a movie. Constant not-so-hushed whispers about what was going on in the movie. Copious amounts of wrapper jostling. Popcorn flying around like Taz had gotten into the tub. Seriously, if you leave your seats looking like this:
YOU ARE MOVIE-ING WRONG!
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Blindspotting portrays the rapidly gentrifying San Francisco Bay Area, and it tells the story of two friends caught up in life-altering events. The screenwriters, Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs were childhood friends, and they crafted the screenplay over a period of nine years.