This is a story that may make you pause a little between bites of your next Big Mac. The Founder tells the tale of Ray Kroc, the man who built up the McDonald’s business empire, and who dubbed himself “The Founder” of said empire.
As this film tells it, it wasn’t Kroc who came up with the idea of a fast serving burger business. He didn’t come up with the idea of a business that would try to apply uniform and high standards across its outlets. He didn’t come up with a concept to appeal to the “family values” of a broad swathe of middle class America.
What Ray Kroc did was take the original idea of brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, persuade them to let him expand it, and then effectively quash them when they didn’t like what he did and the way he did it. So make no mistake, The Founder is not a nice guy. As directed by John Lee Hancock, and as portrayed superbly by Michael Keaton, this is the story of a businessman desperate for a chance to make it big, and utterly ruthless once he seizes that chance. Sure, Kroc can turn on the charm when he wants to, but the McDonald brothers and their contract will not deter him, and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) will not deter him. The motivational long player record he keeps with him on his travelling salesman tours is a constant reminder to him: forget talent, education, fate; what really matters, and what pays off, is persistence.
I’ve seen this film dismissed as a two hour promo for McDonalds. That’s not how I saw it at all. If it had been focussed on the brothers Dick and Mac, maybe. They are shown to be hard-working, inventive, ethical, and determined not to sacrifice quality for crass commercialisation. But as much as the brothers are central to the film, the film is not about them. Rather it is Kroc, and the masterful Keaton, who bestride the movie, and who swamps all before him. This is, excuse the pun, a wonderfully meaty role for Keaton to get his teeth into. He lets you see his character think on his feet, and bounce between sleazy schmoozing and outright anger. By the time he says that business is dog eat dog, and that if a competitor were drowning he would shove a hose down his throat, you believe him. Hardly a rose-tinted telling of the origins of McDonalds.
Having said all that, one wonders how different audiences will receive this film. At a time when some laud Donald Trump’s record of paying little or no corporate tax as a sign of a shrewd businessman, maybe those same people will see Ray Kroc as a hero. He made money, for himself and for his investors. He rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. He embodied the American dream that anyone can make it big.
As for the film, it tells its story in a smart and engaging way. Original photos of the principal characters are used, and in its settings and style it captures 1950’s America very well. It also gives a plenty of insight into how American business worked then, and maybe still does. It’s not necessarily a film to enjoy, but it is one to savour. Recommended.