John Lee Hancock, director
Robert Siegel, script
Starring: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Dick McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (“Mac” McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith Kroc), Laura Dern (Ethel Fleming Kroc), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith)
The spectacular rise of McDonald’s as a fast-food chain in the ‘50s and ‘60s is an American success story, filled with extraordinary ambition, efficiency and greed. I was a teenager when I first heard that someone named Ray Kroc was the charismatic owner of the billion-dollar franchise and I recall being surprised that someone named McDonald didn’t own the company. In The Founder, we find out what kind of a man Kroc was and what happened to the McDonalds.
It isn’t a pretty story but it’s a fascinating one. Kroc was a glorified salesman hawking milkshake makers when he received an order for over a half-dozen of them from a burger joint in California. Curious, he headed out to investigate the original McDonald’s and was startled to see the reason for its success: stunning organizational prowess. When Kroc, played in the film by the brilliantly cast Michael Keaton, orders a burger with fries—the only items on the menu besides drinks—he gets it within a minute. Bingo! Kroc, like most of the people in the area around San Bernardino, California, was an instant lover of McDonald’s.
Invited to inspect the operation by the friendly gregarious “Mac” McDonald, Kroc sees right away that he’s met the Henry Ford of the burger world when he meets Dick, the quiet intense genius of the duo. It’s Dick who came up with all of the streamed line techniques that appealed to the pubic including the idea of using a golden arch as the motif for the company. Unfortunately, the McDonald brothers lacked overwhelming ambition; they had tried to franchise their idea at one point but found it impossible to rein in the local owner operators to keep to their simple, clean style.
Ray Kroc, as we see throughout The Founder, was made of sterner stuff. He persuaded the McDonalds to let him franchise again and when he ran into similar problems, he withdrew franchises, dropped those flighty rich people as friends and found new middle-class Americans, who were willing to hew to the line. When he was told by one of his financial advisors that the real money in the ever-increasing franchises wasn’t in the profits of each burger joint but in the land they sit upon, he became a real estate mogul.
Finally frustrated by the naïve McDonalds, who wouldn’t let him use powdered milk in the shakes, the now independently wealthy Kroc bought them out and even refused to put in writing that they would receive 1% of the profits of the organization they created. Of course, the handshake deal never was honoured. Why would it be? Kroc was hardly an honourable man.
Throughout The Founder, Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc inhabits every scene, learning what’s needed to become richer and stronger while cajoling everyone around him to follow his lead or be cut loose. Losers—that Trump word we’ll hear too often in the next few years—include Kroc’s loyal but not ambitious first wife, the franchisee husband of the woman he wants—and gets—to be the second Mrs. Kroc and, of course, the McDonalds. At the film’s end, he’s ready to meet President Reagan: a feted Republican billionaire.
The Founder is a successful film because Keaton gives a startlingly effective performance as Kroc. He’s as charismatic as Al Pacino in The Godfather 2 or Robert De Niro in Casino but he’s not a gangster. He is ruthless, though, and appalling in an almost tragic way. One wishes that the film was a satire but it isn’t. This hymn to a man who lacked originality but knew how to make a fortune is the first film of the Trump Era. Let’s all learn from it.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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