Sometimes a documentary filmmaker gets hold of a story so perfect — rich details, fascinating characters, and more twists than a thriller — that the smartest decision is to not get in the way.
British director Tim Wardle has such a story in “Three Identical Strangers,” which — like the story of its title trio —begins as a fun human-interest story but then unravels into something sinister, tragic and engrossing.
Wardle tells the story the way the participants lived it, starting with the moment in 1980 when Bobby Shafran, newly arrived at college, is surprised when people call him “Eddy.” Shafran, in the studio speaking directly to the camera, tells of this weird incident in 1980, when he learned that another student entering the same college looked and behaved just like him. Shafran, who was adopted as a kid, soon realized that this other student, Eddy Galland, was also adopted — and that they were long-lost twins, both adopted by the same prestigious Jewish agency, Louise Wise Services.
When one of the New York newspapers does a story about Bobby and Eddy, something else amazing happens: David Kellman, who looks just like Bobby and Eddy, speaks up. David, too, was adopted as a baby, also from Louise Wise Services. Soon the long-list twins are long-lost triplets. (Bobby and David are interviewed, Eddy is not, for reasons that ultimately reveal themselves.)
The national media machine, always searching for an interesting story, goes into overdrive. Soon the triplets are on TV all the time, and Wardle amasses a bouncy montage with such well-known ‘80s icons as Jane Pauley and Phil Donahue.
It’s mentioned that the three grew up in different surroundings: One to working-class parents, one in the middle class, and the third in a wealthy household. Often the phrase “nature vs. nurture” is invoked, usually by mentioning the three men’s similarities — like the way they talk, or that they smoke the same brand of cigarettes — as proof that “nature” is more dominant.
Shafran, Galland and Kellman open a steakhouse, called Triplets, and are the toast of New York. But as their story unfolds, Wardle slowly reveals information that suggests the details of the trio’s separation and adoption were no mere coincidence.
The movie is sharply researched, and the mix of archival footage and current interviews captures the excitement of the triplets’ ‘80s reunion and the terrible cost they have paid for their separated existence. There is much sadness in this story, but also a wellspring of rage at medical and legal hurdles keeping the principals from knowing the whole truth.
Wardle’s careful parsing out of information makes for delicious tension, as he teases out details like a master raconteur. When this movie debuts on CNN this fall, every commercial break will be torture —so see it in a theater, where this incredible story can envelop a viewer without interruption.
★★★ 1/2 (out of four)
‘Three Identical Strangers’
Opened in select cities on June 29; opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 20, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas. Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material. 96 minutes.