Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley isn't only a study of the contemporary American university, but, like all of the filmmaker's best documentaries, a wide-ranging inquiry into the larger institutions and contradictions that define life in the United States (and sometimes France). By choosing the University of California, Berkeley as the subject of his study, Wiseman selects an establishment that allows him to broaden his focus to encompass a consideration of the larger state of U.S. education, the country's public sector, its fading middle class, and the legacy of the '60s. As an elite public school, Cal is uniquely positioned in its role of providing low-cost academic excellence while being constantly forced to scrounge for new streams of revenue; as a university once famous for its legendary protests, it forever rests in the shadow of its former legacy, while students attempt to recreate the fight-for-a-just-cause past and former protestors now fill institutional roles.
The crisis that looms over every minute of the film's four hours is the ongoing threat and increasing actuality of budget cuts. In boardroom scene after boardroom scene, the school's administrators note the state's unwillingness to fund the university at anything approaching previous levels while remarking on the pressures to transform the school into a research enterprise rather than a bastion of education. In typically Wisemanian fashion, these scenes are filmed without judgment, with each speaker allowed to have his or her say and most sounding eminently reasonable. Even when the inevitable upshot of their discussions is tuition hikes, the administrators seem genuinely interested in doing what's best for the university and its students.
Of course, not everyone feels the same way and, as in all of Wiseman's efforts, the film's viewpoint, such as it is, emerges not from individual scenes, but from their juxtaposition. At Berkeley unfolds as a series of symposiums that take place by turns in meeting rooms and classrooms, with a few pauses to glance at some of the other business that goes on at the university, from students throwing a Frisbee to a maintenance worker sweeping stairs. Both echoing and contradicting the deliberations among the administrators, the discussions in student groups and the more progressive classrooms reveal the students' own concerns with both the state of the university and the world. When a lively and intelligent discussion in a foreign-policy class finds the students' idealism about fighting global capitalism checked by the professor's preference for "policy, not charity," the film gets at the contradiction between the noblest ideals that characterize the school's mission—and motivate the country's engaged citizenry—and the reality of effecting change on an institutional level.
What's ultimately at stake here is the very concept of the middle-class dream, the idea of providing a Harvard-caliber education to every qualified student in the state free of charge. The tuition-free days are long gone, of course, and with the middle class increasingly squeezed out of American life, and the public sector progressively under attack, even a state education seems untenable for all but either wealthy students or those who qualify for special assistance. But even here, everything isn't so clear cut, and in the vast array of voices that Wiseman brings into his film, he complicates this issue of middle-class entitlement. At one point, a white mid-income student tearfully breaks down during a group meeting about college financing because her university costs are causing her parents economic distress, while in a classroom discussion elsewhere in the university, a black student offers a different perspective on socioeconomic status. Amid earnest discussions of poverty, the young woman interjects to note that people only seem concerned about that particular issue now that it's affecting white, suburban neighborhoods. As a person of color, she explains, she's long been aware of the lack of opportunities facing her own community. Positioning this scene early on in his film, Wiseman thus asks us to keep in mind the potential biases in our conception of what constitutes middle-class prerogative as we watch the rest of the movie.
Uniquely among the director's films, At Berkeley contains something almost approaching a traditional narrative, though it doesn't emerge until at least two-thirds of the way through the running time. Angered over tuition hikes, as well as a series of other grievances against the university and the state, a group of students stage a sit-in at the school library. As Wiseman films the protestors entering the building and making speeches, he also cuts back to the administration plotting their response as well as indifferent students lolling on the grass outside. This astonishing sequence brings together virtually all the thematic threads of the rest of the film and shifts them from the passive conversational to the active dramatic. But, even here, the film's relentless dialecticism soon reasserts itself, as the students, unsure about what it is exactly that they want, dither, and the administrators, including a man who brags about his former role as a Vietnam protestor, spew contempt for the students while planning their counter strategies. The protest ends with a shock cut, representing not so much a defeat, but a quiet obliteration of the demonstration all together, one that speaks to the vast difference between the student actions of the '60s and the '70s and the unfocused if well-intentioned efforts of today's kids, but also to the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between student and faculty, between idealism and reality, and between the middle-class dream and its shattered remnants, in short, to virtually all of the themes explored with such remarkable depth and complexity throughout every minute of Wiseman's latest triumph.