“Five Days at Memorial” on Apple TV+: a hospital in the eye of the storm

American journalist Sheri Fink won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her investigation of the events that took place at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the days that followed. She then made a book of it. First tipped to be adapted for television in a season of “American Crime Story” by Ryan Murphy, this work finally got its own series, developed by John Ridley (screenwriter of the film “12 Years a Slave”) and Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”), going live this Friday on Apple TV+.

These are images that we had almost forgotten, but which turn the stomach. In the “Five Days at Memorial” series, the horror of the consequences of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans on August 29, 2005 hits hard again. This natural, structural and human disaster is transcribed from the walls of the Memorial Hospital. There, nearly 2,000 people – patients, caregivers, their families and residents who sought refuge in the building – found themselves cut off from the world in terrible survival conditions waiting to be evacuated.

The first five parts retrace the events day by day, almost hour by hour, from the passage of the hurricane to the evacuation of the hospital. The tension continues to mount, the brief glimmers of hope are quickly extinguished with each worsening of the situation. The next three episodes are dedicated to the ensuing investigation, as 45 bodies were recovered from the medical center, more than any other New Orleans care facility. Investigators seek to elucidate many shadowy points. What happened there? What decisions were made? How can this high death toll be explained?

A harrowing experience

The subject of “Five Days at Memorial”, which takes place almost behind closed doors, is of rare power. The complexity of human nature in the face of the inconceivable is wonderfully transcribed. Heroic behavior goes hand in hand with acts of cowardice. Violence and racism undermine a spirit of bravery, compassion and perseverance. The lack of understanding in the face of the total lack of directives and support from the various authorities is heartbreaking.

Obviously, watching this series is a trying experience. Especially since the performance of the various actors strikes straight to the heart. Cherry Jones (“24 Heures chrono”) is exceptional in the skin of Susan Mulderick, the head nurse and referent to coordinate disaster operations. At his side, Vera Farmiga (“Conjuring”, “Bates Motel”) lends her features to Anna Pou, a difficult to identify surgeon who will be in the sights of the investigators. Cornelius Smith Jr (“Scandal”) embodies, meanwhile, one of the only black doctors in the establishment, whose empathy and convictions pierce the screen.

In front of the first five parts, we think of “Chernobyl” (still available on OCS), the masterpiece released in 2019 retracing the nuclear disaster of 1986. The strength of the story and the chilling horror that results in these two series are similar. As for the last three episodes of Apple TV + fiction, however, they would have benefited from being condensed over a shorter period, even if the perspectives of the investigators bring an outside look rich in questioning.

The information that comes to conclude the series concerning the situation in New Orleans, whose levee system failed causing the bulk of the tragedy in 2005, is not reassuring. What underline how much this kind of series is necessary to awaken consciences and not to forget the past. As painful as it is.

Editor’s note:

Five Days at Memorial », American series by John Ridley and Carlton Cuse (2022) with Cherry Jones, Vera Farmiga, Cornelius Smith Jr… Episodes 1 to 3/8 (40, 40 and 48 minutes). Then a component added every Friday. On Apple TV+.

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