John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” (2016)
How do you make an engrossing film about a character who is essentially unlikeable, a predator who steals others’ ideas and innovations and rewrites history to claim those innovations as his own, an anti-hero / near-villain who rides roughshod over friends, business associates and loved ones alike in pursuit of his own selfish interests and greed – and who lives happily ever after, sleeping well at nights? In “The Founder”, director Hancock has found inspiration in the rise and rise of Ray Kroc who joined the McDonald’s hamburger and fast food business, owned and operated by Dick and Mac McDonald, in 1954 and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest fast food corporation: he (Hancock) contrasts Kroc’s astonishing ascent to fame and glory against the McDonald brothers’ determined but ultimately doomed attempts to protect the company’s reputation for delivering quality fast food and prompt service. In juxtaposing the stories of Kroc and the McDonald brothers as the men collide and their paths shoot off in opposed directions, Hancock finds plenty to say about the so-called American Dream and calls into question the exploitation of American cultural values, what it means to be American and the issue of control, whether it be over a business franchise or the land it sits upon, or over one’s relationships, in a society dominated by capitalist values and ideology.
When first we meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), he is rehearsing a speech he is about to make before an audience that includes the then President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Illinois boy-made-good like himself. From there the film jumps back some 30 years to 1954 when Kroc is a travelling salesman trying to hawk milkshake mixers to various fast food joints in the US Midwest and finding no takers. He takes a call from his secretary back in Arlington who informs him that a hamburger place in San Bernardino, California, has placed an order for 6, then 8, mixers. Intrigued, Kroc drives all the way to San Bernardino where he sees queues of customers waiting patiently to order hamburgers at the McDonald brothers’ stand. He makes his acquaintance with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) who tell him of their experiences trying to crack Hollywood back in the 1920s, having to operate a hot dog stand during the Depression years and finally being able to own and run their hamburger fast food restaurant in their own unique way, utilising scientific management methods in designing their kitchen and streamlining work processes, custom-making their kitchen equipment, concentrating on a small and standardised menu and motivating their employees to deliver food and service at a consistent and high level. Kroc proposes that he and they join forces and franchise the business. The brothers demur and explain that they have tried franchising before but were unable to maintain control over the menu and standards. Kroc mulls over their objections and finally convinces Dick and Mac to work together with him by proposing that McDonald’s could become an essential institution in American life, in much the same way that Christian religion and belief in American democracy have become.
From that moment on, Kroc’s rise to become one of America’s richest and most successful businessmen, thanks to doggedness on his part, dominates the film – though he comes across plenty of obstacles in his path. The initial wave of success proves to be too much and quickly Kroc finds his finances and assets over-stretched to the point where he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) are in danger of losing their house. His bank manager won’t budge an inch, Dick and Mac refuse to cut corners on their formula and remind Kroc of the complex contract that he agreed to sign. Enter Harry Sonneborn (B J Novak), an ambitious financial consultant, who goes over Kroc’s books and points out that Kroc needs to own the land on which McDonald’s franchises operate by creating a separate real estate company. Kroc realises that Sonneborn’s proposal will enable him to wrestle control of the McDonald’s concept from Dick and Mac and readily accepts it. As McDonald’s becomes more and more Kroc’s baby and he bends and reshapes its core concept to his will, the brothers are edged out more and more, their business relationship with Kroc becomes acrimonious and eventually Mac’s health fails and he is hospitalised. Kroc eventually buys out the brothers who tragically lose all royalty rights and are forced to give up the McDonald’s name.
Concomitant with Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s name and concept, his marriage to Ethel, who provides moral support and Kroc’s conscience (passive though it is), fails and ends in divorce. Ethel ends up an even more pathetic victim than the McDonald brothers: she ends up with the house but none of the wealth that should be hers. I guess in the end she never gets to go to Spain for a holiday.
The acting is solid throughout and Michael Keaton dominates every scene as the man who sells his soul and morality (I’m assuming he ever had any in the first place) for money, money and more money. He strikes the right balance in making Kroc a sympathetic character driven to succeed in spite of no talent, no education and no connections, yet slimy and lacking in insight. Laura Dern makes the most of a role in which she has very little to do except ask her husband why he couldn’t just live the rest of his life together with her in comfortable retirement, playing golf with the country club buddies and travelling the world together. The film does a splendid job contrasting Kroc’s slick hollowness against the McDonald brothers’ heartfelt passion and love for their San Bernardino baby and their desire and failure to protect it against its exploitation by a predatory hustler.
The film does not make much of the capitalist ideology that informs and supports Kroc’s ambitions or of the debt-based financial system that forces Kroc on his near-insane quest to grow the McDonald’s business and drives him and Ethel close to bankruptcy. So much of modern corporations’ need to grow and earn higher revenues and profits, at the cost of quality control and ethical considerations for their customers and the environments (physical, cultural, economic, political) in which they live, is driven by the need to pay back corporate debts to banks and to take out new loans if they are to meet their financial obligations and continue trading. Viewers need some knowledge of how monetary systems work to pick up this aspect of the film. The scene in which Kroc first meets Sonneborn is a major turning point in the film’s narrative: Kroc begins to understand that owning the land on which the hamburgers are made is the key to breaking the hold the McDonald brothers have over him.
What is significant about “The Founder” is its timing: it comes at a time when Americans and others around the world are seriously questioning aspects of the capitalist economic system and the ideologies and assumptions that support it and legitimise the often sociopathic behaviours that are attracted to it; and when the McDonald’s corporation itself and its core concept of industrialised food preparation and production have become battered and are in need of renewal or replacement. At the end of the film, when we return to Kroc finishing off his rehearsal, he appears to stagger through a doorway, as if on his way to the afterlife. (In real life, Kroc died in 1984 so the film ends at a point where he would not have had much longer to live.)