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'Cherry' Author Nico Walker On Story Behind New Russo Brothers' Film

Nico Walker in his Oxford, Mississippi, office, working on the next book. [David C. Barnett]
Nico Walker smiles as he poses by his typewriter in his Oxford, Mississippi office.

A former Clevelander’s story of war, drug addiction and bank robbery has come to the big screen. The box office-smashing Russo brothers turned Nico Walker’s bestselling book into the film “Cherry,” which started streaming on Apple TV+ on March 12. Set and filmed in Cleveland, it’s based loosely on Walker’s experience as an Iraq War vet. 

The novel “Cherry” starts with an author’s note:

“This book is a work of fiction. These things didn’t ever happen. These people didn’t ever exist.”

But Nico Walker said that there are some similarities with his own life.

You’ve got to write about what you know,” he said. “So, there's going to be overlaps probably in my experience and what I'm writing about. But, you know, it's different from real life.”

When actor Tom Holland walks into an Army recruiting office looking to enlist in the Iraq War effort in the film, the dialogue is different, but the 19-year-old Walker’s motivation to sign up in 2005 was the same. He felt he was living a “frivolous life.”

“Meanwhile, kids my age, you know, they're going over there and they're getting hurt and they're getting killed,” he said. “I felt bad about not sharing in that with them, and I signed up as a health care specialist.”

It’s one of many scenes in the film that parallel Walker’s real life, describing the horror he witnessed on the battlefield, telling how he returned to Cleveland with PTSD and developed an addiction to opioids and describing how he engineered a successful string of bank robberies to pay for his addiction.

Tom Holland portray's Nico Walker's protagonist in the new film "Cherry." [Apple TV+]

The bank heists landed Walker in federal prison in Kentucky, and he eventually moved to a halfway house in Oxford, Mississippi, where I visited him a little over a year ago to talk about the reality behind his book.

“This was after the whole, late '90s thing where they were putting out all that ‘Greatest Generation’ material, you know, and films and what not,” he said. “And there was this idea that war did something to young men, you know, changed them. Made them something more than they were before. And if you were to survive in that, you would have this sort of strength that might carry you through the rest of your life.”  

But, the exciting story of combat told in “Be all that you can be” Army promotions on radio and TV gave no clue about the emotional toll of war. In the film and in Walker's own personal experience, the jittery nerves and nightmares from PTSD wreaked havoc in his relationships with family and friends. He then slid down the slippery slope from tranquilizers to Oxycontin to heroin.

Walker said it was important to him to portray the reality of the Iraq conflict as he experienced it.  He describes in detail how the lives and limbs and minds of earnest enlistees were sacrificed at the hands of bureaucratic incompetence.

Nobody wants to be associated with mental illness,” he said. “Nobody really wants to think about what the consequences are of the politics of the country that they live in. The stuff that you really have no choice but to kind of go along with.”

Walker's harrowing experiences were described in an extensive 2013 article in Buzzfeed. That piece reported that Walker took part in about 250 combat missions in Iraq and won several medals for his service. The story attracted the attention of Oxford-based book publisher and record label owner Matthew Johnson who began a correspondence with Walker and encouraged him to write a book. It was a very slow process, because he had no access to computers.

Nico Walker in prison, where he wrote "Cherry." [Nico Walker]

“They have typewriters in prison, you know, so people can do their legal work on them or whatever,” he said. “As long as you buy a typewriter ribbon at the commissary, you can use the typewriter. And the typewriter was a good thing in a way, because it took a while, made me take my time. Taking time can be good, especially when you’re learning how to do something and you're working through some really heavy issues too.”

“Cherry” published in 2018 to rave reviews.

“The title’s about, you know, the point of experience - before and after,” he said. “It's about disillusionment. It's about going into things one way and coming out another. The people who approach the world as if good intentions were enough to get by on, you know, they're going to have a hard time.”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.