John Lee Hancock’s feature tells the rags-to-riches story of Ray Kroc, the man widely regarded as the founder of McDonald’s. It was under Kroc’s guidance that the burger chain began to spread across the nation in the mid-twentieth century, and since then it’s sold so many “billions and billions” of burgers they’ve just stopped counting.1 But Kroc’s success story, as the movie illustrates (with much attention to historical accuracy), is the stuff of Horatio Alger’s nightmares: the McDonald’s phenomenon was built on lies and betrayal just as much as business acumen and luck—and by the end of the film you’d be remiss not to think that the same might be said of the good old American Dream itself.
At first, Kroc is an archetypal underdog: Michael Keaton is suitably weathered as the middle-aged milkshake maker salesman pitching his way across small-town America, one failed cold call at a time. He’s a low-key alcoholic who fibs weakly to his wife about sales on the telephone from his hotel room at night. Even more grim is the motivational record he plays for himself before bed, which insists that the key to success is not talent or genius but persistence. It’s hard to feel that bad for the guy given what his near future holds (spoiler alert: he becomes insanely wealthy), but there’s poignancy in the fact that he’s clearly a hard-working fellow who hasn’t (yet) reaped the rewards promised him by his disembodied self-help guru.
Things start to pick up for Ray when he meets the McDonald brothers, who operate a crazy-popular and unique little burger joint down in San Bernardino: with a kitchen layout inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line, Dick and Mac McDonald are able to have food ready and packaged for their customers in seconds flat.2 Sensing the revolutionary potential in the “Speedee” system the brothers have devised, Kroc offers to help them franchise their business. It’s the beginning of his new life; unfortunately, it’s also the beginning of the end for Dick and Mac.
McDonald’s takes off (of course), and we witness Kroc’s transition from mostly-sympathetic loser to wildly successful but not-very-nice entrepreneur. Scene by scene, Kroc’s likeability is worn away by his increasingly selfish and immoral behaviour, in both personal and professional matters. First, he wants to expand at a much faster rate than the McDonald brothers’ quality control process allows for. Before long, he is looking to cut overhead costs via sneaky ingredient substitutions, and then to cut the McDonalds right out of their contract. In his final form, he’s spouting vicious lines like, “If my competition were drowning, I’d stick a hose right in his mouth.” (The most outrageous lines in the film, including this one, are genuine Ray Kroc quotes. Make of that what you will.)
As Kroc succumbs to the reptilian quality of his name, the brothers shine more brightly as wholesome and community-minded folk—the rightful owners of the fast food franchise who have been deposed by a greedy usurper. As Mac, John Carroll Lynch retains the sweet and simple affability he evinced as Norm Gunderson in Fargo, whilst Nick Offerman doesn’t stray too far from Ron Swanson territory as the hard-headed, conservative Dick. The brothers are deeply loyal to their business and to each other; their ‘odd couple’ bond is at first played for comedy, but becomes a source of pathos as they realise that they are powerless to stop Kroc’s coup.
Kroc saw the utopian dimension of Dick and Mac’s family-friendly vision: “McDonald’s can be the new American church,” he tells them enthusiastically. However, in bringing this vision to the nation (and then the world), he perverted it, with greed and powdered milkshake mix. The tussle for control of McDonald’s becomes a tussle between two Americas: one centred on community and innovation, the other on the individual as ruthless coloniser. The Founder suggests, with its rather simplistic morality, that the America of the squeaky-clean McDonald brothers did exist, once upon a time (hmmm…), but that it was silently corrupted by the likes of Kroc somewhere along the way to the twenty-first century.
This much is indicated in the film’s deeply ironic title: Ray Kroc is of course not ‘The Founder’, nor is he even a McDonald: the fast food empire was built on theft—of an idea, and of a name. That The Founder sounds rather like the title of a Dianetics pamphlet seems to be the point: like the best cult leaders, Kroc is shown to be a charismatic huckster. This notion is hammered home in the final scene, which leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. Kroc—now the Mc-CEO—is preparing to give a speech about his success. He barrels the camera in close up, and tells the viewer that the secret is not talent… not genius… but persistence. We’ve heard those words before—and they’re not Kroc’s.
In terms of throwing shade at the fast food industry, The Founder is about 10 years late to the conversation started by Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation. And yet, this story about a man who was ridiculed and doubted, who nevertheless persisted, who became a master of cut-throat business tactics, and who ultimately achieved prestige and power beyond his wildest dreams, turns out to be a surprisingly timely one. With Donald Trump the President-elect of the United States, The Founder acquires new and tragic relevance as a parable for these uncertain times.
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