Worlds away from the beer bongs and hazing rituals typically associated with films about college life, Fred Wiseman's sprawling "At Berkeley" immerses us in life at one of the country's most renowned public institutes of higher learning. Utilizing his strictly observational style (it's refreshing in the current climate of documentary features that too often tell you exactly what to think), the filmmaker trains his cameras on the lecture halls, theaters, research labs, stadiums, and boardrooms of the University of California campus, allowing us to see first-hand how every aspect of the school functions.
Filmed in 2010 during a tumultuous time of budget cuts and tuition increases, with state funding providing only 16 percent of the school's massive $1.9 billion budget, we sit in on meetings with administrators as they scramble to figure out how to make up the difference while still delivering on the promise of a world-class education. The exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) film reveals itself to be a compelling examination of the state of our country's educational system, as it shows the rippling effects these cuts have on life at the university.
It all culminates in a student-led protest for lowered tuition rates, and the suspense comes from having seen first-hand why those demands are all but impossible to meet. The four-hour runtime may be daunting, but the engrossing classroom debates that eventually spill out into the real world prove as thrilling as any car chase or shootout in the best summer blockbuster.