Three Identical Strangers–Gripping CNN documentary digs into secrets behind famed separation and reunion of triplets

Review by C.J. Bunce

The first ten minutes of the new CNN documentary film Three Identical Strangers is intriguing enough to merit a major motion picture adaptation.  The film re-tells the story of an adopted teenager who steps into the life of someone else on his first day at community college, only to find that he had an unknown identical twin brother who attended the school the prior year.  Director Tim Wardle‘s introduction and interview with Robert Shafran, now 57, and the best friend who in 1981 knew the newfound twin brother, Eddy Galland, and was shocked to meet Robert on campus, is the kind of exciting filmmaking that illustrates why there are fans of documentaries.

But that was only the first unlikely collision of events.  Only days later when the story was published in New York newspapers, another teen, David Kellman, born on the same day, was reading the story, and his mother showed him the photographs of the twins that looked identical to him.  Identical triplets, adopted out of the same agency, which had separated the triplets at birth instead of trying to place them into a single home.

The story was reported everywhere back in 1980, on shows like Donahue, and the triplets would go on to appear in a scene with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985.  Only the collective forgetfulness of a country of the men’s 15 minutes of fame allowed the story to fade away over the decades.  But there was more to the story, and Wardle would put together a contemporary writer’s research and remnants of the past, busting open a psychological study that breached any sensible person’s ethics.  The triplets weren’t merely studied from afar, their families were specifically targeted for placement, and their parents conned into letting the researchers into their homes each year for subsequent testing.  And yet there’s still more to the story, as Wardle interviews other relatives, an investigative reporter, and two former researchers involved in the study.  It’s a creepy look into the kind of science carried on by Nazi Germany during World War II and banned by the medical profession since, all with an eye toward digging into the battle between nature vs nurture in determining who each individual is in life and what they become.

Ultimately the first hour of the documentary will have anyone with blood flowing sitting on the edge of their seats.  From there, the documentary gets stuck in the morass of unanswerable questions: Why was the study conducted, and what are the findings of the study?  Mental illness becomes a key focus of the film’s end–what did the scientist who founded the study learn that could have helped the separated siblings?  The documentary doesn’t take the viewer into the nature of the laws broken by the adoption agency, or the specifics of what the families may have done for redress from the agency.  Director Wardle does take the audience into possible harms caused by the study, pointing the finger at the agency and anyone involved with them, shrouding the story in the kind of paranoia that ultimately only detracts from the stunning facts of the case, which stand firmly as amazing all by themselves.  One of the researchers in the study is shown with photographs of herself with former U.S. Presidents, leaving the audience to speculate whether the cover-up was government related, or merely one mad scientist’s dabblings with others’ lives.

The triplets were not the only subjects of the study; an unknown number of adopted people today are believed by the filmmaker to have identical twins separated by the agency at their birth, between the 1950s and 1980–when the study stopped likely because of the national coverage of the triplet’s story.  After initial reports in 1980, other adopted twins were reunited.  Following the initial release of the film this past November, Yale released more than 10,000 purportedly sealed but redacted files related to the study, and at least one other set of twins has been reunited.  And–outside the film–the brothers now have access to the videotapes taken in their homes year after year.  Like Michael Apted’s famed documentary 7-Up, chronicling a group of British children interviewed (knowingly) every seven years of their lives (with 63-Up in pre-production, due out summer 2019), it’s the host of incredible surprises that no one could have contemplated at the beginning of a study that make for good storytelling.  Find more of our discussion of Apted’s series here at borg.

Fortunately Apted’s films were done appropriately and by all accounts ethically.  The message of Three Identical Strangers is that, with the adoption agency study publicized now and the benefits of the Internet and modern, inexpensive DNA testing, the triplets may still only be the beginning of the story.

Set your DVR for CNN for February 2, 2019, at 8 p.m. Central to catch the gripping documentary Three Identical Strangers The film is also available now OnDemand via various cable and streaming providers.  The film won a Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance in 2018 (one critic called it “the best film I’ve seen all year, period”), and premiered in wide release on CNN Sunday evening, January 27, 2019, to nearly 2 million viewers–the biggest premiere ever of a show on CNN.

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