Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

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DarkImbecile
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Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#1 Post by DarkImbecile » Mon Jul 23, 2018 12:31 pm

For the first half of Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers, it seemed as if it would be another in the line of documentaries telling an amazing true story - in this case, the reuniting by chance of triplets separated at birth - that has entertainment value as long as it's surprising you with "truth is stranger than fiction" developments - and it certainly is more fun that way, so try to avoid details before seeing it if possible - but never digs into anything intellectually or emotionally stimulating enough to linger in the mind for more than an hour or two afterward. Instead,
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the film eventually begins to explore some significant questions around medical research ethics, mental health, and the fundamental forces that shape us as human beings - with that last element especially taking on an emotional weight in the context of what we discover about the brothers and how their separation impacted them both in and of itself (in a haunting echo of current events regarding the separation of children from their families) and in terms of the familial dynamics they were placed into as a result.

Wardle also raises worthwhile questions about the ultimate value of ethically unsound but perhaps scientifically valid research; is it a waste to neglect the knowledge that could be gained from such studies solely due to the harm it may have caused its subjects, or does that damage inherently stain whatever results one may be tempted to glean from the data? The interviews and portraits of some of the scientists involved are alternately stimulating in their intellectual probing of these issues and subtly horrifying in their clinical detachment to the consequences of their work; one can't help but recoil from the juxtaposition of assertions about the potentially historic importance of the central study with the descriptions of its consequences on entirely innocent children.

As effectively as the film raises these difficult questions, its key flaw is that it tries too hard to lead the audience to definitive answers that are neither entirely earned or necessary; better to force the audience to interrogate and debate these ideas more deeply than leave the theater feeling a false sense of resolution and clarity where there is less of either than the film might have one believe.
Probably the most successful element of Wardle's work on the film's structure is the careful seeding of details that pay off down the line, sometimes in ways that enhance what we originally took as their meaning and sometimes subverting the significance - or even truth - of some of the assertions we took for granted without the benefit of the context provided later. Overall, this was very much worth seeing and its success so far is deserved, even if it doesn't quite grapple with the worthwhile surprises and thorny issues built into its story as well as one might hope in retrospect.

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mfunk9786
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Re: The Films of 2018

#2 Post by mfunk9786 » Mon Jul 23, 2018 12:37 pm

DarkImbecile wrote:
Mon Jul 23, 2018 12:31 pm
For the first half of Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers, it seemed as if it would be another in the line of documentaries telling an amazing true story - in this case, the reuniting by chance of triplets separated at birth - that has entertainment value as long as it's surprising you with "truth is stranger than fiction" developments - and it certainly is more fun that way, so try to avoid details before seeing it if possible - but never digs into anything intellectually or emotionally stimulating enough to linger in the mind for more than an hour or two afterward. Instead,
SpoilerShow
the film eventually begins to explore some significant questions around medical research ethics, mental health, and the fundamental forces that shape us as human beings - with that last element especially taking on an emotional weight in the context of what we discover about the brothers and how their separation impacted them both in and of itself (in a haunting echo of current events regarding the separation of children from their families) and in terms of the familial dynamics they were placed into as a result.

Wardle also raises worthwhile questions about the ultimate value of ethically unsound but perhaps scientifically valid research; is it a waste to neglect the knowledge that could be gained from such studies solely due to the harm it may have caused its subjects, or does that damage inherently stain whatever results one may be tempted to glean from the data? The interviews and portraits of some of the scientists involved are alternately stimulating in their intellectual probing of these issues and subtly horrifying in their clinical detachment to the consequences of their work; one can't help but recoil from the juxtaposition of assertions about the potentially historic importance of the central study with the descriptions of its consequences on entirely innocent children.

As effectively as the film raises these difficult questions, its key flaw is that it tries too hard to lead the audience to definitive answers that are neither entirely earned or necessary; better to force the audience to interrogate and debate these ideas more deeply than leave the theater feeling a false sense of resolution and clarity where there is less of either than the film might have one believe.
Probably the most successful element of Wardle's work on the film's structure is the careful seeding of details that pay off down the line, sometimes in ways that enhance what we originally took as their meaning and sometimes subverting the significance - or even truth - of some of the assertions we took for granted without the benefit of the context provided later. Overall, this was very much worth seeing and its success so far is deserved, even if it doesn't quite grapple with the worthwhile surprises and thorny issues built into its story as well as one might hope in retrospect.
For something that CNN had a hand in, I thought the ball was dropped on the level of investigation that went on within the film of what the hell happened. It seemed like as we saw the characters hit a brick wall, the filmmakers did too, and considering the amount of journalistic muscle they should have had behind them, it felt like perhaps even the powers that be behind the production had no interest in shaking the tree hard enough. The film was very charming, very sad and very interesting, but the third act was far too much of a half measure to me.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#3 Post by DarkImbecile » Mon Jul 23, 2018 12:49 pm

Interesting; I'm assuming you're referencing
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the inability to access the records of the study (being held with extremely limited access at Yale until the latter part of this century). I thought that actually played into the examination of the (unanswerable?) question regarding the ultimate worth of the project itself relative to its costs. From a journalistic perspective, yeah, it'd be more important to see what's in those boxes of files, but in terms of the film's intellectual concerns, I didn't have any problems with leaving it as Schrödinger's study for the time being. It seems clear from the closing title cards that the key individuals have finally been provided access to the files in question, so maybe a home video release could have extra material covering what can be discovered there.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#4 Post by mfunk9786 » Mon Jul 23, 2018 1:18 pm

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Not just not being able to access the details of the study, but not being able to hold anyone accountable and get any substantive explanation for why the secrecy existed around it to the degree that it does. The film had this whole "hey, this is a giant monolithic organization ostensibly geared around Jewish youth, how interesting that they were involved!" and then sort of just abandons the whole idea of looking into the actual origins of the study, instead of just who was involved and what the results were. It absolutely feels as though someone took the message not to get too close, which is a disappointing thing to see in something like a documentary film, where pursuit of the truth behind something truly disturbing should be paramount, not just telling a charming story and then sort of adding some atmospheric smoke to the darker elements of it.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#5 Post by MongooseCmr » Mon Jul 23, 2018 2:16 pm

Limitations in what the filmmakers could uncover aside (or maybe because of that), I really took issue with a different late revelation in the film
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The brother that is absent for the talking head section of the film killed himself in the 90s, at first implied to be a part of hereditary mental illness all the brothers share. But as the movie scrambled to find a message to end on it pivots to blaming his strict dad and their poor relationship for his death. To follow an elderly man lamenting his role in his son’s death (“There must be something I didn’t teach him”, as he puts it) with some friend of the family explicitly saying that nurture over nature killed Eddie and not the other two is disgusting. I can’t see any value in the rest of the movie after that beyond it’s “stranger than fiction” quality
For a 93 minute film this used a lot of repeating clips to make the same points. My crowd had audible groans when the same clip of female twins appears for the third time in thirty minutes.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#6 Post by mfunk9786 » Mon Jul 23, 2018 4:47 pm

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It certainly plays as insensitive, but I don't think the point was meant to damn his father but more to show that playing God with the placement of children, when you have information at your disposal that perhaps a disciplinarian parent might not be a good fit with the [known, in this case] psychological health makeup of the child is potentially harmful. It served for me as an illustration of what's so ghoulish about this experiment moreso than as an indictment of the old man.
And man, you aren't kidding. Among the repeating interview clips: what the hell kind of a studio was the one Donahue was in? It looked like a tribunal of some kind was going on.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#7 Post by jklugman » Mon Jul 23, 2018 4:53 pm

Regarding DarkImbecile's issue,
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I wonder if there were some rather prosaic reasons explaining the "mysteries" surrounding the study. The PI was a Freudian and that was rapidly losing cachet with psychology. His methods were not great (having the same guy observe all siblings within a twin pairing is just biasing the study in favor of showing twin/triplet similarity), the ethics are dodgy, and the discovery of the separated twins/triplets was inviting media attention and scrutiny. Of course he is going to ditch the study. Interviewing historians of psychology would have been illuminating, but then the film could not indulge in its overdramatized story about sinister scientists.
And I agree with MongooseCmr 100%.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#8 Post by DarkImbecile » Mon Jul 23, 2018 5:00 pm

mfunk9786 wrote:
Mon Jul 23, 2018 4:47 pm
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It served for me as an illustration of what's so ghoulish about this experiment moreso than as an indictment of the old man.
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Agreed; he's just as much a victim of the study as the kids. And the researchers would have almost certainly have been able to offer targeted guidance and mental health support to that family at any point from critical points in early childhood well into Eddy's adulthood, and actively chose not to do so.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#9 Post by mfunk9786 » Mon Jul 23, 2018 5:03 pm

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They also chose, when they were obviously aware of these brothers having been reunited, not to provide Eddy (as well as his brothers and their adoptive parents) with any context for his upbringing or as you mentioned, extend mental health support as an apology for involving him in this study. Could have saved his life. They set up a bunch of dominoes, watched with the rest of the world as they tumbled, then didn't make any effort to pick them up off the floor.

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Re: Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)

#10 Post by zedz » Wed Aug 08, 2018 4:35 pm

mfunk9786 wrote:
Mon Jul 23, 2018 4:47 pm
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It certainly plays as insensitive, but I don't think the point was meant to damn his father but more to show that playing God with the placement of children, when you have information at your disposal that perhaps a disciplinarian parent might not be a good fit with the [known, in this case] psychological health makeup of the child is potentially harmful. It served for me as an illustration of what's so ghoulish about this experiment moreso than as an indictment of the old man.
SpoilerShow
I felt like the hereditary mental health issue was ultimately a red herring. There's evidence it was a known issue with one other test subject, and the filmmakers try very hard to suggest it was also an issue with the brothers' birth mother, but was that in fact the case? The evidence is flimsy at best (she liked a drink; one of the brothers denies it was an issue and is then caught in a gotcha moment conceding "maybe? who knows?"; the brothers supposedly had "troubled adolescences", like a lot of adolescents and an awful lot of adopted adolescents), and surely it's something that's easy enough to research, since they know the identity of the woman. If there were any actual, concrete evidence that the mother had mental health issues (that the study designers would have been aware of), I'm sure it would have been presented in the film.
It's one of several instances in the film where the filmmakers are desperate to create sizzle in the absence of any evidence of steak.
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The adoption agency's sinister champagne drinking - which we hear about multiple times - is a case in point. Maybe they were a bunch of evil masterminds toasting the success of their world domination scheme, or maybe they just had a drink after every board meeting, or it was Betty's birthday?

In general, I think the filmmakers go way overboard trying to imply a big, horrible conspiracy, when there are much more banal explanations available. Adoption in the 1950s and 60s was awash in secrecy. Psychiatry, medical trials and scientific studies likewise. God knows people didn't talk about mental illness if they could possible avoid it. This often had devastating consequences for the subjects of those practices: it's hardly unique to this story.

For me, this is more about how radically our expectations about informed consent and openness around issues like adoption have been transformed in half a century, and that in itself would have made a worthy and fascinating - albeit less sensationalistic - subject for a documentary.

The non-publication of the study also doesn't need to be a huge conspiracy. From what we know, it had to be abandoned rather than coming to whatever its intended conclusion might have been. As has been pointed out here, maybe it was so flawed from the outset that many of its findings were dubious. Perhaps most importantly, and most trivially, it was an expensive project and the money ran out.

Oh, and even the release of the study documents as an end credits footnote (they include extracts from the films shot of the triplets) is manipulated to appear as further evidence of a cover-up, with "all references to other test subjects redacted" - well, duh, of course they're going to protect the privacy of other test subjects, particularly with a documentary film crew poking around. It's a perfectly reasonable privacy (and legal) issue for those other subjects, not necessarily for the study.

Again, one has to assume that the released documents offer no support for any of the conspiracy theories the filmmakers are trying to float, or it would be paraded in the film. But rather than say that, they come up with insinuations that are presented just so in order to keep the conspiracy spark aglow. Considering that study had emerged as the film's white whale, it's telling that they don't even get into it once they finally have partial access to it.
Still, it's a lively, fascinating film for all its flaws.

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