Combat veterans, famously, don’t tend to talk much, if at all, about their experiences of war. At least not to civilians, and maybe not even to their closest relatives. Knowing this, those of us who aren’t veterans tend to have ideas about the things they aren’t discussing. Things like violence and fear and the chaos and insanity of battle. That’s surely a part of it, but in a way it’s also the heightened cinematic version, the one we’ve all gotten from war movies. What it leaves out are the torn-up emotions of soldiers, the lifelong imprint left upon them not just by the cataclysm of war but by their relationship with their fellow soldiers — the loyalty and love, the complex code of liberation and guilt at having survived.
“Mending the Line” is a drama about two veterans and their relationship to the combat experience, and the movie, which is also about fly fishing (in that metaphysical Zen-of-the-outdoors way), has a deceptively placid surface and a turbulent undertow that catches up to you. The central characters are both Marines, scarred and defined by the combat they’ve been in. When we first see John Colter (Sinqua Walls), he’s leading his platoon on their final day of deployment in Afghanistan — but, of course, that “routine” day of recon doesn’t go well. It’s an ambush from hell.
Cut to three months later. John has survived and is back in the U.S., where he has been sent to several rehab centers, starting with Walter Reed and, now, the V.A. Medical Center in Livingston, Montana. His physical injuries are healing — the scar tissue on his thighs from an I.E.D., the concussion he suffered. And the psychological injury? John, at a glance, looks taut and together, but he swigs from a half-pint of whiskey all day long, and we see his nightmares; they’re about the buddies he couldn’t save. As for his fury at the military bureaucracy, it’s intense enough to feel misplaced. He’s angry at the group therapy he’s assigned to do, angry at the trauma counselor who has never seen action, angry at the establishment that’s subjecting him to endless rounds of evaluation. All he wants is to go back into combat.
Ike Fletcher (Brian Cox) is a retired veteran of Vietnam, a loner who doesn’t drink, cook, watch TV or movies, or meet up with his fellow veterans. That’s how much of a cut-off soul he is. All he does is fly fish. For him, the sport is organized around the solitary rite of catching a wriggling trout and tossing the fish back into the water. (It’s his way of deciding, each day, not to kill.)
Ike, with his white hair and beard, his occasional blackouts at the river (he’s not supposed to be fishing alone), seems to be edging into a serene if precarious old age. But he’s angry, too. You can’t have a Brian Cox character without a residue of anger. It’s there in his squinty J’accuse! stare, in the cynicism just beneath the jolliness. At the V.A. center, Dr. Burke (Patricia Heaton) puts John and Ike together, figuring that fly fishing could do the younger man good by giving him the therapy he needs. For a while, it’s a boot-camp-as-“Karate Kid” situation, with Ike forcing John to do a lot of scutwork (not to mention homework, like researching the flies at the end of the lines and plucking a book or two out of the vast panoply of fly-fishing literature — John chooses “The Sun Also Rises.”)
But then the two men start to fish. John, after a short while, brings along Lucy (Perry Mattfeld), a local librarian and rehab-facility volunteer, who lost her own fiancé in combat. She learns to fish too. In recent years, fly fishing has become a popular form of therapy among veterans, and for a while “Mending the Line” encourages you to think that you’re watching the PTSD version of “A River Runs Through It.” The river idyll doesn’t last, though. John thinks he’s getting better; he’s primed to heed the call to rejoin the war. But the call never comes. Sinqua Walls, with his quiet, stoic, avid-eyed affability, makes John a paragon of service, to the point that we can’t help but admire his courage. Yet the movie is throwing us a curveball. Its point is that John can’t be an effective soldier if he’s too wounded inside.
Ike, who never fully recovered from his own wounds of anguish (we sense this because he’s got a son who’s estranged), understands all that. He’s got John’s number. And in the last part of the movie, he gives John the message he needs to hear, in words delivered by Cox as if they were life poetry from the soul. Laying in a hospital bed, Ike tells him, “In the book of every soldier’s life, the military is a chapter. It never leaves you. But [whispering] it’s not, not the whole story.” “Mending the Line,” directed by Joshua Caldwell from a script by Stephen Camelio, has a rote TV-movie look and a few bland and rambling passages. But it delivers a truth about those who have served, about the reality of the demons that can linger in them, that’s tough and moving. The film concludes with black-and-white photographs of real veterans fly fishing, a ritual that by the end we see more clearly as a baptism of restoration for those who gave everything.