‘Five Days at the Memorial’ Packs More Than a Dramatic Punch

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Thousands of people lost their lives as high winds wreaked havoc, leaving emergency services stretched to the breaking point. Five days at the Memorialwhich arrives on Apple TV Plus from August 12, dives into the skin of this moment in history, to shed light on what happened.

With a star-studded cast of character actors, including Vera Farmiga (Hawk Eye) and Julie Ann Emery (You better call Saul), this Carlton Cuse-directed adaptation of Sheri Fink’s non-fiction book should be more appealing. With Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 years of slavery) also part of the brain trust, every moment of this hospital melodrama should be grueling to watch.

This does not mean Five days at the Memorial fails to capture the interpersonal conflicts, moral dilemmas, or ethical conundrums that audiences will expect. However, what is missing for much of these first three episodes is a sense of tension. Having weathered the first night of truly terrifying weather, time is spent establishing character and allowing the actors to shape their performances.

Unfortunately, despite some devastating archival footage, heartbreaking radio reports and Poseidon Adventure levels of destruction, the show struggles to connect. It only really finds traction after three hours, when mistrust and resentment take hold and some wild decisions have to be made.

Doctor Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) in Five Days at Memorial (AppleTV+)
Doctor Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) in Five Days at Memorial (AppleTV+)

Beyond the exceptional performance of the mammoth ensemble, Five days at the Memorial only gets really interesting when the audience sees people buckle under the pressure. Along with the lack of help from a government ill-equipped to deal with disasters of this magnitude, there is also the issue of widespread looting outside and escalating threats of violence inside.

As generators drop, temperatures rise, and life-altering choices are made, the series finally begins to deliver some real drama. An outside perspective is provided by Mark LeBlanc (JD Evermore), who has a sick mother on the inside, while on the inside, hospital administrator Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones) keeps things together.

In many ways, it’s the pedigree of those involved that will keep people watching, as Cuse was instrumental in orchestrating Lost, one of the most convoluted yet compulsive shows ever made. If you also add John Ridley’s freezing cold, viewers should know that Five days at the Memorial concerns the implosion of many more than one hospital due to floodwaters.

Key moments that give an indication of the agenda beyond the drama date back to a casual shot of Air Force One flying over New Orleans. Homes are destroyed, families are isolated and the population has become indigenous as the instinct for survival kicks in. Similar to Oliver Stone’s world trade centerwhich vividly depicts another snapshot of American history, Five days at the Memorial aim just as high.

Doctor Horace Baltz (Robert Pine) and Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery) in Five Days at Memorial (AppleTV+)
Doctor Horace Baltz (Robert Pine) and Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery) in Five Days at Memorial (AppleTV+)

This intentionally puts you in a powder keg of conflicting agendas, which only get more complicated as the minutes go by. Another dramatic element that opens almost every episode is a series of one-on-one vox pop interviews, featuring different characters each time. Not only does it break the structure by allowing the audience to see these people outside of Memorial, but it also adds another layer to things by introducing the notion of retrospective blame.

Finger pointing under pressure is purely the result of self-preservation, whether it’s prioritizing patients based on their condition or manipulating situations and people for maximum advantage. Finally this is where Five days at the Memorial remains the most successful, as it gradually peels back the onion of human behavior to reveal what lies beneath.

However, it remains to be seen whether the public is willing to go through so much suffering to be better informed. With over five and a half hours of screen time informing, educating and enlightening audiences about the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, attention will wander. Sometimes the magnitude of this tragedy is overwhelming, as some truly terrible decisions are made by people running on empty.

This is something the public should know, because Five days at the Memorial is not a beach day when it comes to portraying human suffering. However, whether this embrace of realism adds anything else to this all-too-human drama is up for debate.

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