Film Review: The Peacemaker

Intimate look at Padraig O'Malley, an author and professor who has devoted his life to resolving violent conflicts.
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Now in his 70s, Padraig O'Malley has spent the past 40 years trying to bring peace to conflict zones. This earnest documentary finds the "peacemaker" at the end of his career, worried about his health and legacy. Intimate but still opaque, The Peacemaker is both indulgent and frustrating.

Director and producer James Demo opens The Peacemaker in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2012, as O'Malley presides over a forum on cities in transition. Tall and gaunt, the spectral O'Malley seems indifferent to the heavy military presence surrounding him, intent instead on bringing mediators from opposing sides in conflicts together to negotiate for peace.

As O'Malley explains later, he was living in Boston at the height of the "Irish troubles" in 1975, when Northern Ireland was torn apart by terrorist violence. O'Malley realized that peace would never be achieved unless representatives from opposing sides could find a neutral spot to negotiate. At his own expense, he set up meetings in The Plough and Stars, a pub he co-owned in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

That strategy became the basis of future attempts to resolve conflicts. O'Malley befriended South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose reconciliation committee proved so successful in his country. South Africa sent mediators to Northern Ireland, using the example of their country to persuade the Irish to negotiate.

The Peacemaker follows O'Malley to Kosovo, Israel and other locations, where he meets with negotiators and presides over meetings. The filmmakers also shoot O'Malley with Gladwin, a daughter he adopted in South Africa when he was involved in a relationship with Pat Keefer.

O'Malley repeats several times that he has no time for personal relationships, that he has never loved anyone, that his work takes precedence over others' feelings. The filmmakers interview several of his friends and acquaintances, who range in feeling from bemused to bitter.

The other constant in O'Malley's life is his alcoholism. He's shown at AA meetings, where he complains about his lack of spirituality. In individual interviews he is candid about his decades of heavy drinking.

O'Malley's dedication, even at the expense of his health, is admirable, but The Peacemaker has trouble explaining his accomplishments. We don't see enough of the process behind his “Cities in Transition” meetings, even though interview subjects insist that his approach works. O'Malley's tirades about religion, his impatience with people trying to help him, and his romanticized accounts of drinking binges position him as difficult, irascible and not very appealing.

The Peacemaker tackles a fascinating character, but never digs beneath surface details in O'Malley's life. And while his work is commendable, not enough of it is seen in a documentary with good intentions but few insights.

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