"At Berkeley" begins with a staff meeting where a Mr. Birgeneau addresses the steady erosion of California's financial support for the university, which plunged drastically in only a few years. A question that runs through the film is how and where you cut back without harming the quality and availability, of education in one of the country's most respected institutions; the fundamental right to higher education, who should pay for it and the worsening burden of student debt.
"At Berkeley" is structured like a marathon multidisciplinary study session, interrupted by breaks in which students are shown lounging on the lawns, throwing Frisbees and attending a football game. With only one reference to sports in the film, Berkeley is portrayed as the furthest thing from a party school, and the students it observes are intensely engaged and precociously articulate.
Many of the most absorbing scenes observe the teaching process and are careful to give equal emphasis to the humanities and the sciences and technology. Sexy poems by E. E. Cummings and John Donne are parsed. We observe an excerpt from a university production of "Our Town" and another excerpt from what appears to be a student musical with a clever original song about Facebook. We monitor an enlightening class on Henry David Thoreau. Anyone who fantasizes about the possibility of interstellar travel in the near future will be set straight by the daunting scientific reality, as described by one teacher. We meet a graduate student working to perfect bionic legs for disabled soldiers. Together, these classroom scenes offer juicy, bite-size pieces of knowledge that span the range of learning to a degree that you will feel that you have tasted from a rich educational sampler and perhaps learned how to think a little bit better than before.
That quality higher education has become so expensive is reflected by the seriousness of the student body. In the days of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, in the 1960s, college was more affordable, and it was possible to take it lightly.
Because of Berkeley's history of left-wing activism, the tradition of student protest continues, though in a milder form. "At Berkeley" culminates with a student demonstration and occupation of the library, during which the leaders spout defiant rhetoric and issue an ever-lengthening list of demands to the administration, some of whose members participated in the '60s free-speech protests. Eloquent as some of the demonstrators may be, many of their demands sound petty, and even contradictory. The administration has no choice but to take them seriously and to gird for the possibility of unrest, which doesn't materialize. What's most encouraging about the film is that everyone seems to display a spirit of flexibility, even when disagreeing.
Wiseman has made his share of grim documentaries in which people are processed and oppressed by bureaucracy. "At Berkeley" is not one. Its cautiously upbeat attitude is expressed in a director's note: "I think it is just as important for a filmmaker to show people of intelligence, character, tolerance and good will, hard at work, as it is to make movies about the failures, insensitivities and cruelties of others." Amen.