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Five Days at Memorial review: A brutal but necessary retelling of an American disgrace

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For years, Ryan Murphy and his team tried to develop Katrina: American Crime Story. The season was going to be based on Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink's bestselling book about the horrifying events at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center — including the alleged euthanasia of several patients by Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses — in the desperate days after the hurricane ravaged the city.

But Katrina never materialized, and eventually Murphy dropped the project. "I ultimately just couldn't figure out how to crack it," he told Collider in 2020. As excellent as Crime Story can be, it probably wasn't the best platform for Five Days. Not only was no one ever convicted of wrongdoing, but putting the word "crime" in the title indicates a certain level of clarity about the events in question, and perhaps the comfort of a black-and-white outcome. With their Apple TV+ adaptation of Five Days at Memorial, John Ridley and Carlton Cuse instead present an agonizing, brutally vivid retelling of a natural disaster that begat a national disgrace — one where there was so much blame to go around, it never actually settled anywhere.

On the night of August 29, 2005, staff, patients, and residents needing shelter lock down in Memorial Medical Center as Hurricane Katrina begins its destructive march through New Orleans. Five Days (premiering Aug. 12) sets up the story from a variety of perspectives: Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga), Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.), and Horace Baltz (Robert Pine), three of the doctors on duty that night. Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), the hospital's nursing director and incident commander, who is dismayed to learn that Memorial has no official evacuation plan in place in case of flooding. Up on the hospital's 7th floor, which houses an independently run facility called LifeCare, incident commander Diane Robichaux (Julie Anne Emery) awaits instructions from Mulderick, while Angela McManus (Raven Dauda) holds vigil by the bedside of her critically ill mother (Diane Johnstone). Miles away at home, Mark LeBlanc (JD Evermore), the son of another LifeCare patient, anxiously seeks word about his mother's wellbeing.

Five Days at Memorial
Five Days at Memorial

Russ Martin/Apple TV + Robert Pine and Cornelius Smith Jr. in 'Five Days at Memorial'

Though it was largely shot in Toronto, Five Days recreates the terrifying onset of Katrina and the subsequent flooding by blending archival footage with fierce, well-produced action sequences shot on practical sets. By day two, Memorial staff find themselves in the sweltering heat with no power, dwindling supplies, and no sense of who — if anyone — will be coming to their rescue. As desperation settles over the city and rumors of violence multiply, the senior staff at Memorial realize they are on their own. "It's a goddamn mess out there," a National Guardsman barks at Susan after warning them of the levee breach. "No one is in charge. No one knows what they're doing. If you're waiting for an official order, it's not coming."

What happened next is all in the public record (and in Fink's meticulously reported book), but the key facts are these: Conditions deteriorated into unimaginable hardship. Evacuations were slow and laborious — staff members had to carry each patient up endless flights of stairs and on the hospital's rooftop helipad — and absent official guidance, Mulderick and her team had to decide who to save first. As the waters and the tensions rise, Ridley and Cuse foment an atmosphere of increasingly claustrophobic oppression. The camera lingers close, capturing the misery in tight shots; intentionally choppy cuts give some scenes the feel of staggering through the action, mirroring the creeping exhaustion and disorientation felt by all inside the hospital. When rescue finally arrived and the doctors were given mere hours to evacuate all their patients or risk being left behind, it seems some — including Pou, Mulderick, and Dr. Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) — felt "do no harm" was simply no longer an option.

Five Days has an excellent ensemble, and the performances are compelling. The cast conveys the queasy disconnect of real people struggling to cope with hideous and unreal circumstances; Michael Gaston and Molly Hager are appropriately intense as the state's lead investigators into Memorial's high death toll. Farmiga plays Pou as dogged and devout, determined and deeply devoted to her patients — which, by all accounts, she was. But Five Days also portrays her as the person who, in the fraught final hours of the evacuation, led the efforts to inject several patients with a lethal cocktail of drugs to hasten their death — which, by multiple accounts, she did.

Was it murder, mercy, or something in the murky middle? Yes. Five Days does not purport to have a more definitive answer. The catastrophe at Memorial did not lead to a federally mandated protocol for hospital disaster preparedness; Anna Pou is still a practicing doctor. The best true-life TV series (see: Dopesick, the first two seasons of American Crime Story) help us understand the mistakes of the past in a new way — but if our own government isn't clear on how to prevent another Memorial, it's probably unfair to expect a TV show to come armed with bold new solutions.

Five Days at Memorial is a high-quality, extremely grim retelling of a low point in American history. This is not a series that anyone is going to enjoy watching, for what I hope are obvious reasons. But it's a show that absolutely should be watched, if only because in the 17 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, our planet's climate crisis has just gotten worse. More Katrinas are inevitable — more Memorials would be a choice. If Five Days serves as the catalyst for some kind of official change, that will be all that matters. B+

Five Days at Memorial premieres August 12 on Apple TV+.

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