(CNN)A grim reminder of the catastrophic institutional failures associated with Hurricane Katrina, “Five Days at Memorial” captures the personal toll and terrible choices made under the most adverse of conditions. Working backward from the 45 dead bodies discovered in Memorial Hospital, it’s a compelling fact-based look at those five days as well as their aftermath.
Indeed, the title notwithstanding, “Five Days” (which devotes each of the opening installments to a different day) actually encompasses eight parts, a metaphor for the way streaming series deal with time if there ever was one.
Here, though, the extra chapters necessarily deal with the fallout from what transpired, shifting from the doctors — forced into choices about leaving patients behind, and horrifyingly, euthanizing them — to those investigating what happened (played by Michael Gaston and Molly Hager), where the blame lies and the related politics surrounding it.
Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink’s nonfiction book and adapted by Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave,” “American Crime”), the series makes clear that the hospital staff were largely left to their own devices. Rosy predictions turned to helplessness — and air-conditioning-free hopelessness so thick you’re practically sweating along with them — when the levees gave way.
After optimistic predictions of being there “a few days at most,” doctors grapple with no-win alternatives about evacuating a hospital that had no plan for such an occurrence. “There are no options,” says the hospital’s incident commander, Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones).
What to do? The sickest patients couldn’t easily be moved, but officials balked at leaving anyone behind. As the implications of talk about not allowing people to suffer or die alone gradually dawned on the staff reactions ranged from horror to resignation, offering a moral test as well as a medical one.
Liberally using actual news footage of the storm, the producers deftly convey those moments, such as when doctors and nurses realize that colored arm-bands dictated who would live or die. It’s a classic real-world demonstration of sociological experiments that have asked how ordinary people in a moment of crisis can find themselves engaging in behavior that would otherwise be unthinkable.
“Five Days” thus resonates as more than just a disaster movie stretched into series form, but rather a case of cascading “What would you do?” and “How far would you go?” questions under the direst circumstances. As one doctor (“Scandal’s” Cornelius Smith Jr.) muses talking to investigators later, “It only took five days for everything to fall apart.”
In addition to the aforementioned actors, the ensemble cast features Vera Farmiga as Dr. Anna Pou, a brilliant surgeon whose actions drew particular post-rescue scrutiny, Robert Pine, Julie Ann Emery, Adepero Oduye, W. Earl Brown, and Jeffrey Nordling.
Early on, a technician foreshadows the peril to come by saying of the rising waters and the hospital’s ability to operate, “It’d take about four feet to put us out of business.”
“Five Days at Memorial” is the opposite of a feel-good story; rather, it strikingly illustrates how the dividing line between principle and ruthless pragmatism, between fighting to save every life and deeming people expendable, resides somewhere along the precarious edge of that four feet.
“Five Days at Memorial” premieres Aug. 12 on Apple TV+. Disclosure: My wife works for a unit of Apple.