At Berkeley

Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Aspen (1991) seemed like a response to the greed and materialism of America during the first Bush administration; At Berkeley, a monumental record of the University of California at Berkeley, feels like his response to the deregulation and rising income disparity that characterized the second. Shot in autumn 2010, the film contains numerous scenes showing higher education at its best: impassioned rap sessions between students and public policy professors, medical-engineering students fitting a disabled veteran with robotic legs, and inspired close readings of classic poetry. But these moments are gradually overwhelmed by scenes of administrators dealing with an ongoing budget crisis—the result, we’re often reminded, of drastic state disinvestment in public education. This is the bitterest movie Wiseman has made in some time, climaxing with scenes of a failed student protest that cast a dark shadow over the preceding narrative.