Review: ‘Five Days at Memorial’ dramatizes just how bad it got for a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina

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Did Dr. Anna Pou, a surgeon at what was then known as Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, get “Sully”-ed? Was she a valiant physician undeserving of attacks on her ethical character and crisis management? Or, in the cruel aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, did she cross every known ethical, medical and legal line?

“Five Days at Memorial,” the eight-part limited series now streaming on Apple TV+, dramatizes many more questions and real-life characters. The series unfolds against a larger maelstrom of gutless mismanagement and abdication of responsibility on the federal, state and city levels in the wake of Katrina.

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The floodwaters that breached the levees left so many, betrayed and isolated, to die. What happened in this particular building — 45 corpses were found days later in the hospital chapel — is both a lament and a warning to those who will face the next Category 5 hurricane.

Warning: While often gripping, the series, covering a nearly two-year time span, is not the propulsive “ER”-style experience promised by the trailer. The first five episodes, broken down neatly by Day One, Day Two etc., constitute a stark drama of waiting. Waiting for floodwaters to recede; for power and hope to be restored; for privatized health care administrators to do the right thing.

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The final three episodes shift gears into the story of how Louisiana Department of Justice officials investigated the events involving Dr. Pou, played by top-billed Vera Farmiga, and her colleagues under barely imaginable duress. What makes “Five Days at Memorial” worth seeing, in a cold-creeps way, is its emphasis not on nobility or venality but everything in between. Series creators, writers and (splitting the first five episodes) directors John Ridley and Carlton Cuse aren’t trying to do “Katrina: The Limited Series.” They use Memorial as a metaphor for the entire Katrina tragedy.

The series is based on Sheri Fink’s 2013 book “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” (The hospital is now the Ochsner Baptist Medical Center.) Ridley and Cuse make the necessary character intros speedily and well in episode one. With the hurricane six hours away, Pou is planning for an inconvenience of “three days at the most.”

On the upper floors of Memorial, a separate, for-profit hospital, LifeCare, is overseen by the very pregnant Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery). Cherry Jones, splendidly honest and dimensionally moving as always, portrays her Memorial counterpart, Susan Mulderick. They’re nominally in charge of disaster preparedness. At one eerie point in “Five Days at Memorial,” Mulderick desperately flips through a manual, searching for the hurricane scenario that does not exist.

The storm hits, the floodwaters rise and then, on Day Two, recede. But then the levees give way, and conditions become a nightmare. The long-delayed helicopter rescues of patients require many flights of stairs inside the building (the power’s out) and then, on the roof, two sets of rickety metal stairways up to a helipad that has not been used in nearly two decades.

Other key characters, notably Pou’s colleague Dr. Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.) and registered nurse Karen Wynn (Adepero Oduye), become the viewer’s eyes and ears. As “Five Days at Memorial” proceeds, the conditions of those stranded in a sweltering, malfunctioning hospital mirror what’s happening mostly off camera.

Though hardly the fault of Wendey Stanzler, who directed episodes six, seven and eight, the series as written morphs into a very different affair after episode five. An assistant Attorney General Arthur “Butch” Schafer (Michael Gaston, excellent) and his Medicaid Fraud Unit colleague Virginia Rider (Molly Hager) learn that some patients did not die of natural causes. At this point “Five Days at Memorial” goes into full legal procedural, with a simple mystery to be solved, centered mostly on Pou’s actions.

These later episodes of “Five Days at Memorial” favor spooky, vaguely Expressionistic flashbacks where we learn what really went down. They’re a bit much. Now and then, the series blows its budgetary wad on conspicuous digital depictions of horrific destruction, including the roof blowing off the Louisiana Superdome. These tactics have a way of distancing, rather than intensifying, the human drama Ridley and Cuse achieve successfully elsewhere.

“Corporate is doing everything they can,” Mulderick reassures a colleague at one point, and the way Jones murmurs that line, you hear tiny warning bells of despair. What an actress! So is Farmiga, who does everything she can to complicate her character’s motives and actions, even when the series makes up its mind about Dr. Pou so we don’t have to.

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“Five Days at Memorial” — 3 stars (out of 4)

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Content rating: TV-MA (language, thematic elements)

Running time: Eight episodes, approximately seven hours total

How to watch: Premieres Aug. 12 on Apple TV Plus

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

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Twitter @phillipstribune

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