Padraig O’Malley, the backroom world-trouble-spot negotiator who’s the title figure of James Demo’s documentary “The Peacemaker,” is a man engaged in a mission so arduous and noble that just hearing about it can put you in an earnest school daze. O’Malley travels around the globe, staging conferences in which he brokers dialogue between the feuding factions of places like Bosnia and Israel and South Africa and Iraq. His approach is therapeutic: Instead of having the two sides of a dispute lock horns and debate their fatal differences, he encourages them to sit down and schmooze; he gets them to humanize each other. (He first attempted this 40 years ago, in response to the cataclysm of the Irish conflict, and lo and behold, it worked.)
In no way does it trivialize the importance of these international upheavals to say that when “The Peacemaker” shows us O’Malley seated at the conference table, surrounded by 20 bureaucratic factional representatives who have agreed, for the moment, to leave aside their rancor, the film generates all the dynamism of a C-SPAN seminar.
What brings a documentary like this one to life is a central character with something going on that’s thornier than his official idealism. Fortunately, that’s Padraig O’Malley. He’s a haunted, contradictory character, to the point that he isn’t just more fascinating than the conflicts he’s trying to solve. The more we get to know him, the more his core motivation — is he an idealist or something else? — becomes the mystery of the film.
O’Malley, now 75, is tall, gaunt, and impressive, a grizzled handsome upstart with a face so dour it can seem possessed. He’s like a James Cromwell character, nursing hidden brooding depths. We learn, early on, that he’s a recovering alcoholic, 13 years sober, and though we see him at an AA meeting, sharing and withholding at the same time, the tales of his drinking trickle into the film only gradually. He has lived, since the early ’70s, in Cambridge, Mass., where he originally came to study economics at Harvard. But he bet his $10,000 Fulbright Scholarship on the 1971 Ali–Frazier fight, and lost. His university became The Plough and Stars, the fabled local tavern, halfway down Mass. Ave. between Harvard and M.I.T., where he drank away his life for decades.
O’Malley describes the entire period as a semi-blackout, dotted with girlfriends and misadventures. But the drinking turned out to be an ironic entry point into what would become his mission.
In 1975, he organized a conference in Amherst with representatives of every faction of the Irish struggle. He brought them to the table, but just as important he brought them to the bar. The drinking was extensive (O’Malley, even in sobriety, claims that if it hadn’t been for the alcohol, he couldn’t have bonded with the participants the way he did), and it introduced what might be called the hangover school of political negotiation. By the end of the conference, says O’Malley, everyone was so worn out from all the boozing that “if you had a Valium and split it with someone, they’d be your friend for life.”
He’s being cheeky, but also not. That conference proved to be a brick in the road toward the fragile peace accord that the Irish have now achieved. And O’Malley was on his way as a negotiator. He’d found his calling. He was shrewd enough to buy a stake in The Plough and Stars, as well as the building that housed it, and that’s how he has financed his missions ever since. But lest the irony of a pub fueling world peace sound incidental, O’Malley admits that his role as a mediator is, in itself, an addiction. That’s where “The Peacemaker” gets into interesting but morally murky terrain.
The movie follows O’Malley around, flashes old photographs of him back when he was a strapping, bushy-haired figure with the glow of a political star (he wore his hangovers well), and gets him to confess some of the things he’s running away from. O’Malley says that if he stops working for so much as three or four hours at a time, “I start to suffer from withdrawal symptoms.” He has a foster daughter, born in Africa, he sees for one month out of the year, but he says that he loves no one; he lives for the work, and admits that it’s a ritualized form of self-denial. Intriguingly, he has conceived his floating Forum for Cities in Transition as a kind of 12-step program for beleaguered nations. “Just as an alcoholic is in the best position to help another,” he says, “one divided society is in the best position to help another.”
But is that really true? O’Malley has had moments of success — with the Irish conflict, which he knows in his Celtic bones, and in the 2008 Helsinki talks he led about the morass in Iraq. And no one should begrudge any of that. Yet by the end of “The Peacemaker,” the film raises, almost inadvertently, an uncomfortable question: Is O’Malley’s work, for the most part, accomplishing something that’s largely symbolic, because the ultimate purpose of the work is to fill the void in Padraig O’Malley’s soul?