Credited to four directors (including the Grey Gardens team of Albert Maysles and the late David Maysles), this chronicle of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park magnum opus—which used ¾ as much steel as the Eiffel Tower—is fascinating and frustrating by turns. The best part comes a few minutes into the film, which marks the third anniversary of the project, when attorney Theodore W. Kheel’s account of meeting the artists in 1979 suddenly transforms into a flashback. Believing that “creation is as much a part of the final product as the work of art” (in Kheel’s words), Christo and Jeanne-Claude arranged for the Maysles brothers to document their original pitch to then–Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis when New York was just starting to emerge from the long funk that held sway over the city in the 1970s.
Despite Christo’s belief in recording every stage of his process, the ’70s sequence is the only time The Gates goes deep behind the scenes: Most of the film consists of semicandid footage of New Yorkers taking in the finished project during the two weeks it was in place in February 2005. While the archival material is thoroughly fascinating (it’s wild to see Koch-era politicians reacting suspiciously to Christo’s plan to self-finance the project), brief glimpses of massive bolts of fabric in a Queens warehouse and of Mayor Bloomberg palling around with the artists offer hints at how much richer the film could have been with a greater focus on the run-up to the installation. Albert Maysles and the other directors obviously hoped to capture the impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project for those who couldn’t be there, but the effect is like trying to do justice to the Mona Lisa with a postage stamp.