TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "Three Identical Strangers" centers on triplets adopted from the same agency in the early 1960s by three different families - none of which knew about the others. Director Tim Wardle follows the story from the brothers' accidental discovery of one another in 1980 through the attempt in the '90s, by journalist Lawrence Wright, to unravel the whole story. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Three Identical Strangers" is a puzzle documentary. And the more pieces the director Tim Wardle fills in, the more astonished you get and the angrier too because what starts out as a "Parent Trap"-like lark becomes increasingly diabolical before your eyes. Robert Shafran, Bobby, is the first of the film's narrators. In the late '70s, he was an incoming sophomore at an upstate New York college, where he was greeted effusively and even hugged by girls. They called Bobby Eddy though. Then a guy he'd never seen came to his room and asked if he was adopted and if his birthday was July 12, 1961. The answers were yes and yes. So the two of them jumped in a car and drove four hours to the Long Island home of one Eddy Galland.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS")
BOBBY SHAFRAN: His eyes are my eyes. And my eyes are his eyes. And it's true.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They looked exactly alike. They're duplicates of each other. There was no doubt in my mind that they were twins.
SHAFRAN: He's going, oh, my God. I'm going, oh, my God. He's going holy crap. I'm going holy crap.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They just looked at each other, and they moved - every time, Bobby moved his head, Eddy moved. And then Eddy would move, and then Bobby would move, like they were looking at a mirror. It was the weirdest thing.
SHAFRAN: It was like the world faded away, and it was just me and Eddy.
EDELSTEIN: There are photos of this in the movie - of Bobby and Eddy staring at each other with absolute delight. And I'm betting you'll break into a grin yourself. Photos of the twins were all over the tabloids, one of them seen by a woman who recognized her friend David Kellman, identical brother number three. Here's the most exuberant sequence in "Three Identical Strangers" - a giddy montage of interviews with Phil Donahue, Jane Pauley and others narrated by journalists and relatives.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Reunited after 19 years.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We have a story about triplets that gives new meaning to the phrase long-lost brothers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We went on everything, everything.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're not seeing double. You are perhaps in a moment going to be seeing triple.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I don't know who's who here. Come on out here, gentlemen. Come on out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You just had to stop what you're doing and watch them on every different show.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It became a circus. It became a media circus. Talk about viral - I mean, it was viral even then.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You guys have been on the front page of every newspaper in the world.
BOBBY SHAFRAN AND EDDY GALLAND AND DAVID KELLMAN: True.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: People magazine, Time magazine, even The New York Times, Good Housekeeping.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: David, let's begin with you. Which one's David? I keep forgetting. You're Edward.
EDDY GALLAND: Right.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: OK. Who are you? Are you David?
SHAFRAN: I'm Robert.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You're - I'm sorry. You're Robert. All right. Robert and Edward - come on.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: It was a fairytale story, and people need to hear wonderful things.
EDELSTEIN: It's a while into "Three Identical Strangers" before we hear the phrase that's obsessed so many of us - nature versus nurture. Do our genes determine who will turn out to be? Or is it how we were raised and what happened during childhood? I remember my college psychology books mentioning twin studies - kids reared apart who turned out to have uncanny similarities. And the more footage we see of the triplets moving in unison and finishing one another's sentences, the more we think score one for nature. Bobby, Eddy and David would move in together in the '80s and start a restaurant in Manhattan called Triplet's, where the greeters and servers were all three of a kind.
Wardle is a cunning storyteller - so cunning that he makes you wait through all the fun stuff before circling back to Louise Wise Services, said to be the pre-eminent Jewish adoption agency in the United States. Why did they give identical triplets to three different families without saying a word about the other two? It obviously wasn't a paperwork error. It was by design. But what design? Whose design? I shouldn't say too much more, though stopping here would give you no sense of the tragedy to come.
The great New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright enters the film to discuss his investigation in the '90s, incomplete, by necessity, into the mysteries of the triplets as well as several other pairs of separated twins from the Louise Wise agency. By the time Wright and Wardle get to a Dr. Strangelove-like Austrian Holocaust survivor and a government-funded study, you might want to exhume the phrase stranger than fiction. You have to look to paranoid sci-fi writers to find something comparable.
One hint to what was going on is that the three brothers were raised in different kinds of families - one working class, one middle class, one upper-middle class. Coincidence? And how about the fact that there was mental illness in their genes from the mother who gave them up. One more thing - the brothers don't look so much alike in later footage. Bob is drawn, balding, exceedingly grim. David is beefier and has hair. Eddy is absent. If nature dominated part one of "Three Identical Strangers," in part two, nurture makes a comeback - big time.
Among the most upsetting parts of this story is that some of the puzzle pieces - the records connected to this study - will be sealed for another half century. But I'm betting that when more people see this knockout documentary, the official secrets will be harder to keep. There might still be identical strangers walking among us.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the country's largest providers of psychiatric care now are not hospitals but rather the jails in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. We'll hear from journalist Alisa Roth, who visited jails across the country for her new book "Insane" about how the mentally ill often end up in correctional facilities ill-equipped to treat them in conditions that aggravate their symptoms. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.