Separated at birth, then reunited at age 19 in 1980, New York triplets Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman became the toast of the talk-show circuit after learning that they were long-lost brothers. Though their story received considerable exposure at the time — making them a welcome fixture at Studio 54, landing them a cameo with Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and so on — the public tended to focus on the inspirational reunion rather than asking questions about the circumstances of their adoption.
Turns out, the brothers’ story is much bigger and more complicated than anyone imagined, and is only now being properly revealed, thanks to director Tim Wardle’s jaw-dropping decades-later doc “Three Identical Strangers.” A gripping, stranger-than-fiction account of a real-world medical conspiracy, the film begins as a human-interest story and builds to an impressive work of investigative journalism into how and why they were placed with the families who raised them. The truth about the triplets — especially the implications such a case holds for the classic nature-versus-nurture debate — boggles the mind. After all, how often do we encounter three identical young men raised in relatively different social environments?
If you want to save the surprise for the film itself, stop reading now. Shockingly enough, the infants’ separation was no accident, but a carefully orchestrated variable in an elaborate psychological experiment. Behind it all is a plot practically on par with Ira Levin’s “The Boys From Brazil,” a pulp page-turner in which Dr. Mengele and a gang of Nazi scientists try to resurrect Adolf Hitler by not only replicating his DNA but ensuring that the clones are raised by similar parents (a young mother married to a civil servant 23 years her senior), even going so far as to re-create a key trauma in each young boy’s life at age 13 (they do it 94 times, hoping one of the clones will turn out like their beloved Führer). It’s an outrageous concept for a book, but no less loony than what appears to have happened here — even though, in this case, everyone involved was Jewish.
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Twin studies can be invaluable for countless reasons, since they’re virtually the only way to isolate the influence of genetics when examining the impact of other variables on two individuals. While it’s well known that Nazi scientists conducted rudimentary twin-based eugenics tests, until now there’s been nothing to suggest an experiment of this scale taking place in the United States — and never a case where the researchers had a hand in separating the subjects for the sake of scientific observation.
Early on, Shafran recounts how he and Galland happened to discover each other’s existence. It’s like a scene out of “The Twilight Zone,” dramatically reenacted using young actors, as Shafran shows up for his first semester at Sullivan County Community College, only to be mistaken for his twin brother. It’s not until the story runs in New York papers that Kellman recognizes that he, too, might be related, leading to a well-publicized reunion.
In addition to two of the brothers, Wardle involves family members and the newspaper reporter who broke the story to retell this chapter in their reunion — all edited at maximum energy to draw audiences in and mask a second major twist. As the triplets’ case starts to look more complicated, Wardle incorporates other twins (notably, two sisters who had been separated by the same Jewish adoption agency, Louise Wise Services) and journalist Lawrence Wright, who had uncovered some of the truth when researching a story about the phenomenon, even interviewing Dr. Peter Neubauer, the psychologist behind the study of which they were all unwitting participants.
The film makes the point that whereas the first wave of coverage around the triplets focused on the brothers’ similarities — the way they completed one another’s sentences, their shared mannerisms, and their matching taste in women — no one seemed to be paying close enough attention to their differences. No one except Neubauer and his staff, who placed the boys in homes with radically different parenting styles and checked in at regular intervals to perform tests tracking the children’s emotional development. Looking at them today, it’s hard to believe they were triplets at all. Brothers, certainly, but not identical siblings.
Even without headings to separate the sections, the well-organized film is clearly divided into distinct chapters, which vary the tone and energy of the documentary enough to keep us riveted — although things start to feel somewhat repetitive toward the end, as rhetorical questions about the ethics of the experiment become the central focus. Would the brothers have led happier lives if they had grown up together? What gave Neubauer or Louise Wise Services the right to play God with their fates? And why is there still such secrecy around the study, the results of which were sealed for decades?
In the closing minutes, the movie becomes almost oppressively self-righteous, adopting (for lack of a better word) the attitude of the brothers, who have reason to feel violated and want to know to what end their lives were thus manipulated. Hardly anyone here seems to accept that Neubauer’s work — so controversial in retrospect — was the product of an earlier era whose practices gave rise to the trope (which still echoes through film and TV, from “The Shape of Water” to “Stranger Things”) where men in lab coats experiment on that which they do not understand. As the documentary wraps, a new chapter is just beginning — one that involves a legal battle and, with any luck, will answer whether the knowledge gained from the study could possibly be worth the tragedy sustained by its unwitting subjects.