Documentarian James Demo picked a heck of a subject for his first full-feature subject: Padraig O’Malley. O'Malley is a brilliant man who has written several books on his experiences working with various world leaders, who gathered together a group of Northern and Southern Irish leaders stuck in violent conflict on his own dime in 1975, who uses every waking moment on one sole mission: to end conflict wherever it resides. Telling this story required Demo to embed himself with O’Malley by traveling the globe to whichever country O’Malley was headed to in order to learn more about this man who receives no national or global recognition for his work. While an uplifting story to be sure, there’s also a great deal of pain; pain that O’Malley, and his closest confidantes, don’t shy away from discussing.
Utilizing a mixture of candid interviews with O’Malley, his co-workers, and family, along with recorded news interviews from the past thirty years, as well as B-roll footage, Demo puts together the picture of a man in crisis who believes the only way to save himself is through the protection of others. On the surface, O’Malley is a representation of peace: wholly selfless and driven by pure goodness. However, that selflessness seems rooted in O’Malley’s struggle within himself for sobriety. This is largely conjecture, of course, as O’Malley is too quiet, too guarded to speak of these things directly, yet this is a reasonable conclusion to infer as Demo carefully unfurls O’Malley’s history.
Not able to handle the academic pressure of Harvard, Irish ex-pat O’Malley placed a $10k bet on the infamous 1971 Ali-Frazier fight – in favor of Ali, the returning champion – with his entire future dependent on the win or loss. With the loss, O’Malley dropped out of school, finding himself spending the majority of his time at local pub constantly serving ex-pats like himself. As discussion turned to the conflict in their homeland almost daily, O’Malley took it upon himself to bring leaders from the opposing forces in Northern and Southern Ireland to The Plough and Star, the bar he would eventually purchase to utilize a means of funding his work. Though he failed to generate peace between the warring factions, it sparked something within O’Malley that would drive him to become one of the most respected, highly sought after conflict resolution experts around the world. Like the proverbial monkey on O’Malley’s back, Demo seems intent on uncovering the connection between this personal mission and alcohol’s influence on O’Malley’s physical and psychological pain.
Demos accompanied O’Malley for two years as O'Malley traveled to a forum he helped create known as the Forum for Cities in Transition, an organization that gathers delegations from countries experienced in internal war who can help guide others toward peace. Through delicate, unobtrusive observation, we see O’Malley chatting with ambassadors, reporters, and global leaders. We see him provide personal assurances and make guarantees that no one other than the most trusted person in the room could make. We listen to O’Malley’s tale of working with Nelson Mandela to develop the Good Friday Agreement that’s responsible for ending the conflict between Northern and Southern Ireland. But we also hear the stories of those closest to O’Malley who speak of a man who never stops, who never takes vacations, who has an assemblage of support from assistants and former lovers, but no confidantes. Through tales plebian and extraordinary, O’Malley is revealed to be a man in constant motion out of fear of living a meaningless life, a life without legacy, while being completely aware that his possessions, his experiences, and even his memories are pure ephemera. For a man who’s aided Eastern-Jerusalem and Western-Jerusalem to find common ground so that they may take steps toward peace, he can’t seem to stop the war within himself.
The Peacemaker (2016) is a riveting story, not because of the important work that O’Malley and his organization strive to accomplish, but because the man himself is such a complicated character. Each of the colleagues or friends that Demo interviews suggest a man that keeps the world at arm’s length. A man driven by some promise that he dares not speak of nor acknowledge. Instead, with steadfast resolve, O’Malley pushes aside all normal tethers to achieve something he believes is greater than himself. Even as O’Malley learns the consequences of his lifestyle and the way in which his anxiety of not working is aiding in the deterioration of his mind, the very thing he needs in order to remain the person the Forum requires, he rarely sheds a tear - though those who observe this will.
Unlike some documentaries which possess a singular message or a clear ending, Demo successfully provides a simple glimpse into the life of a man the world at large doesn’t know exists. There’s nothing sexy about the material that audiences will clamor for, so it’s likely going to be word of mouth that helps The Peacemaker (2016) reach the audience size it deserves. O’Malley, whether he’d admit it or not, wants his work to mean something, and the best way to ensure that is for his story to be told. It’s a wild story filled with adventure and regret that may make an intense biopic starring Liam Neeson. Until then, Demo’s The Peacemaker is a powerful memorial for a man whose final chapter is not yet written. Sound like something you’d want to see? What documentaries have struck a chord with you?
Final Score: 8 out of 10.