Recommended: Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+
What's Five Days at Memorial About?
A riveting adaptation of Sheri Fink's bestselling book, Five Days At Memorial relives both the horrifying week after Hurricane Katrina — when Memorial Hospital in New Orleans lost power and was plunged into chaos — and the criminal case against hospital staff over allegations that they euthanized patients.
Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?
Hurricane Katrina made landfall 17 years ago this month, and by the time it dwindled to a tropical storm, 1,800 people had perished. Of those deaths, none were more troubling or tragic than the 45 patients who never made it out of the Baptist campus of New Orleans Memorial Hospital. An investigation later revealed that as many as half had been injected with morphine, raising questions of how a First World hospital found itself so unprepared for a water calamity that its doctors were reduced to committing euthanasia.
Journalist and former physician Sheri Fink won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2009 New York Times investigation into the Memorial Hospital tragedy. She then expanded her story into book form, interviewing more than 500 people including Dr. Anna Pou, who would ultimately face second-degree murder charges. Armed with such a wealth of narrative, writer-producers Ridley and Cuse do the sensible thing here, which is to tell Fink's story as straightforwardly as they can, without gimmicks like multiple timelines or unreliable narrators.
Vera Farmiga and Cherry Jones are the headliners, and it's great to see both of them getting so much screen time. Ridley's prowess at assembling a stellar repertory group should not be in question after three seasons of American Crime. And yet, what elevates Five Days at Memorial above other recent book adaptations (Dopesick, The Dropout, Maid) is the writing and directing. Ridley and Cuse have taken Fink's investigation into those fateful days at Memorial and turned it into a spellbinding visual narrative — easily the best limited series of the year so far. Ridley wrote and directed the first five episodes and he immerses us in the stifling, crowded, desperate confines of the hospital so deeply, you will feel the perspiration on your neck.
In an especially moving sequence, we watch a small army of exhausted staff use every last bit of strength to haul an obese patient up four flights of stairs to the hospital's dilapidated helipad and a flight to safety. Ridley then immediately cuts to the hospital's other obese patient, who had the misfortune to be located in the LifeCare unit, from which Pou decided he could not be evacuated, and who would die inside the building. This is the same Anna Pou that Ridley takes care to show as a humane, conscientious doctor — at one point changing an invalid's diaper as he lays on the hospital floor — leaving the viewer to chew over how this same person could commit such monstrous acts.
In contrast to less sophisticated docudramas, Five Days at Memorial leans into its case's moral complexity. Race, class, and corporate greed are all grist for Ridley, as they were in his three superb seasons of American Crime, but he's smart enough to just follow the arc of Fink's reporting, lending it his own gift for dialogue.
If you’re thinking “well this all sounds great, but I don’t have Apple TV+,” perhaps it's time you got a subscription. Five Days at Memorial is only the latest evidence that the streamer behind CODA, Ted Lasso, Pachinko, and Shining Girls has outstanding taste. Fink's book had been optioned twice before Ridley and Cuse pitched it to Apple TV+. Kudos to them for seeing that this ethical horror show, this story that never should have happened in America, was a story that needed to be retold today.
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TOPICS: Five Days at Memorial, Apple TV+, Adepero Oduye, Carlton Cuse, Carlton Cuse, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith Jr, John Ridley, John Ridley, Michael Gaston, Molly Hager, Robert Pine, Vera Farmiga, Wendey Stanzler