Five Days at Memorial review: harrowing account of a natural disaster

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The Apple TV+ drama adapts journalist Sheri Fink’s account of crisis mismanagement and medical malpractice at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

“I notice that it was only five days,” notes Dr. Bryant King and swallows slightly as he speaks. “It only took five days for everything to fall apart,” he continues, explaining to prosecutors investigators what happened at Memorial Hospital and refusing to look them in the eye. You keep pushing him and asking what he means when he says things have fallen apart. “You couldn’t prevent patients from dying – or you couldn’t prevent them from being killed?”

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Five Days at Memorial opens August 28, 2005. With Hurricane Katrina approaching New Orleans, Memorial Hospital is sheltering people alongside all the patients already being treated there and doctors. The hurricane itself damages the hospital immediately, but New Orleans is a city particularly prone to flooding: the levees collapse and huge waves crash on the city, ripping houses off their foundations, sweeping cars and power poles with them, water doing it all ground level on its way to the ground. Memorial Hospital has an emergency plan for a hurricane, but they are not prepared for a flood and they certainly are unable to evacuate patients. Thousands of staff and patients were trapped in the hospital for five days.

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It is not long before the power goes off and the backup generators fail (“Without power it’s not a hospital, it’s just a building”) and hospital staff are increasingly reliant on partial, improvised solutions. With no air conditioning, the hospital is damp and stuffy, and everyone’s face is glistening with sweat; They quickly run out of food, fresh water and medical supplies; Treatment options falter and a triage mentality sets in. Efforts to evacuate the hospital are thwarted at every turn as nominal authority figures. from the hospital’s corporate owners to state officials, try to avoid legal liability.

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Five Days at Memorial is a sharply written, stirring piece of drama that explores structural failures both outside and inside the hospital. An early subplot about the slow bureaucracy arranging the evacuation – suits in a comfortable office idly wondering if the hurricane might benefit their parent company – gradually fades from the narrative, purposefully and deliberately going nowhere. But it’s also smart with the rationalizations and compromises made in desperate situations: haggling and prioritizing, cautious discussion of hypotheses, euphemisms creeping into conversation. The initial insistence that every patient must be evacuated is put into perspective and restricted. “No life the patient is left behind,” they begin to say, and the unspoken idea—long lurking in the background—of putting patients to sleep begins to solidify.

Adepero Oduye as Karen Wynn and Cherry Jones as Susan Mulderick, who converse from adjacent sides of a corner desk. In the background, patients lie on hospital beds (Credit: Apple TV+)

What is also striking about Five Days at Memorial is the subtlety in depicting these decisions. It succumbs to the ambiguity of the moment, rarely admitting who knows what and when; John Ridley’s script has a pretty keen sense of how paranoia spreads nearby, and how that paranoia is soon tempered by unspoken implications. That idea of ​​what people can and can’t acknowledge runs through the heart of the show – a camera work that emphasizes the act of witnessing with those long close-ups of eyes, a sound design that intentionally cuts out important dialogue and leaves silence – what contributing to the feeling that (part of) the medical staff is gradually repositioning itself to tacitly support euthanasia.

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Midway through the series, there’s a fantastic scene where Crisis Response Coordinator Sandra (Cherry Jones) tells Horace (Robert Pine), an elderly doctor, to go with the next group of evacuees. “I wouldn’t ask you for anything more,” she says to him with a hug, and suddenly the seemingly friendly offer is questioned: is she asking him to leave because he would argue against putting patients to sleep? Isn’t it a kindness – does it make sure he’s not there so it doesn’t burden his conscience? He looks almost guilty later in a corridor at Dr. King walks by – because he left or because he knows what’s going to happen next?

It’s the kind of nuanced drama that works in large part because Five Days at Memorial is so well cast, with even the smallest roles cast perfectly. (Malube Uhindu-Gingala, in only a relatively minor role as one of several nurses, is responsible for one of the most memorable moments – that expression of relief, disgust and guilt at the same time as she realizes that she is, too, the birth of a baby evacuate themselves to escape.) It’s a series that conveys much more through implication and insinuation than dialogue, more about what’s left unsaid than what’s spoken aloud, with cast members like Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones and Adepero Oduye responsible for This economy of storytelling is responsible for its multi-layered performances. While the show is astute in its depiction of how the doctors convinced themselves to put patients to sleep, it remains clear about the moral flaw itself – it’s murder, and it’s repeatedly stressed that it needn’t have happened.

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One of the major themes of Five Days at Memorial is faith: religious and secular, in physicians and governments, in authority figures large and small. It’s been undercut time and time again – from President Bush’s visit to New Orleans, which was revealed to be a vanity tour, to bodies piling up in the hospital chapel. It keeps revolving around the opening image of the series, with a Stars and Stripes flag and a cardboard sign that reads “Pray for us,” floating abandoned in filthy flood waters. They become icons, ultimately defined by their absence during Five Days at Memorial, and in the end, that dereliction of duty is key to their polemic and point: There should have been another way.

Five Days Memorial starts on AppleTV+ on Friday, August 12, with new episodes weekly; I watched 7 out of maybe 8 episodes of the series before writing this review. You can read more of ours TV reviews here.

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