Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

RBG


The Notorious R.B.G.

(2017) Documentary (CNN Films/Magnolia) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Arthur Miller, Clara Spera, James Ginsburg, Brenda Felsen, Jane Ginsburg, Lisa Frey Inghausen, Martin Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, Aryeh Neier, Wendy Williams, Sharon Frontiero, Ted Olsen, Amina Sow, Eugene Scalia, Kelly Sullivan, Frank Chi, Helen Alvarez, Lilly Ledbetter. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

For the American left, Supreme Court Justice is an icon approaching rock star (or more correctly, rap star) status. In the last few years she has become something of a pop culture touchstone, with her beaded/lace justice robes (in place of ties) and her nickname “The Notorious RBG” taken from the name of a rap star.

The bookish and somewhat reserved Ginsburg is an unlikely pop icon but the truth is she has been a tireless crusader for gender equality her entire career, starting when she attended Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of just nine women in a class of over 500. Since then she’s argued as a lawyer six cases before the then-all male Supreme Court, winning five of them.

She might never have been a Supreme Court justice (the oldest sitting on the court currently) had it not been for her husband Marty. As gregarious and outgoing as she was quiet, he was the yin to her yang. Although he sadly passed away in 2010, he used his contacts in the Bill Clinton administration to get his wife an interview for the vacant bench position. Clinton later realized in the first few moments of the interview that he knew he had his candidate. Marty and Ruth made a formidable team.

Since then she’s been one of the few liberal voices on a largely conservative court and has mostly penned minority opinions but those opinions have been some of the most thoughtful and well-researched legal papers of the last thirty years. Say what you want to about her politics; Ginsburg has a first class legal mind. The filmmakers do a particularly stellar job in presenting some of these opinions in an easy-to-digest manner, making sense of her legal arguments for laymen.

There is definitely more than a little lionizing going which is understandable – she has long been a hero to feminists and liberals – on here and much of the focus is on her gender equality work. While Ginsburg doesn’t really consider herself a radical feminist, she certainly believes very strongly that women should have the same opportunities as men and should be paid commensurately for their skills.

If I have a complaint about this film it’s that it makes Ginsburg out to be something of a one-trick pony, really glossing over other subjects she has also weighed in on in favor for her stances on women’s issues. The filmmakers do show her to have a bit of an impish sense of humor as she is bemused by her current status. We also get a sense of the closeness of her family who address her fondly as bubbe and take great delight in teasing her about her terrible cooking which she herself admits to. Everyone needs a flaw to be human, right?

While Cohen and West aren’t going to win any awards for outside the box documentary filmmaking with RBG, they did do something even the best documentarians sometimes fail to do; they gave us insight into their subject. That’s not necessarily an easy task especially given that their subject is notoriously reticent and fiercely private. I would have liked to get a bit more about how her progressive viewpoints came to be but essentially they came from her parents so I suppose that there isn’t a lot that Cohen and West could have done to elaborate further.

I suspect most readers who tend towards the right side of the political spectrum will want nothing to do with this movie and I can sympathize with that that. I tend to give the films of Dinesh D’Souza a miss since I disagree with his politics vehemently so I can’t condemn conservative viewers for doing the same thing I myself do. I can only say that one of the more charming sequences portrays Ginsburg’s long-time friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, her very conservative colleague on the bench. Some liberals do grouse about this sequence but I think it illustrates her willingness to understand all sides of an argument. If Ginsburg and Scalia could find a way to mutual respect and admiration (both were opera devotees) perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the country.

REASONS TO GO: The explanations of her legal decisions are superbly handled. While there is some hero worship going on, the subject comes off as very human. Certainly those of a leftist persuasion will enjoy this film.
REASONS TO STAY: There really isn’t a lot of explanation as to how she arrived at her progressive beliefs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some content discussing controversial subjects.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ginsburg was one of nine women to graduate in the Harvard Law School class of 1956 with over 500 men.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best of Enemies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Lean on Pete

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan