The soft smile hanging on my lips through the first half of the The Founder drooped away slowly. The gradual realization of Ray Kroc’s (Michael Keaton) character builds up scene by scene until his ambitions lead him to decisions that aren’t only logical, they’re inevitable.
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is at its basest level an attempt to recount the creation of the largest fast food empire in the world, McDonald’s. On a more personal plane, it attempts to illustrate the conflicts inherent to chasing the American dream.
The parallels between Kroc and the newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump in this regard, are uncanny. “I know how to win,” Kroc says. “I’m good at winning.” One doesn’t have to dig through Trumps memoirs and novels very long to find a similar business rhetoric. Hell, on Friday — coincidentally the day of Trump’s inauguration and The Founder’s public premiere — Trump shouted to his 800,000-person crowd in front of the White House: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”
The parallels between Kroc and Trump are uncanny
When winning becomes more than just the difference between happiness and despair though, that attitude becomes hard to justify.
When Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) lies in his hospital bed and Kroc comes by with flowers and an envelope, it could be an example of good faith, but Kroc is not that man. The blank check Mac pulls from the card is a sign of the good in Kroc — or at least the business good as Kroc would define it. But the reality is that the cold business approach is sickening. And Kroc is not immune.
He second guesses himself in a human way often throughout the film. Not in the business world — in that arena, he’s full speed ahead at all times — but from the opening scenes right to The Founder’s close, we see questions bubble to the surface of Kroc’s mind. Am I doing something wrong?
When he first meets Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the then-wife of one of his potential franchisees, she asks when he started his company. He pauses and wets his lips before answering 1954, the year Kroc made the franchise boom, not 1937 when Mac and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) began toiling away with failed drive-in stands on their way to perfecting the assembly line for food.
The same thought sticks in Kroc’s throat throughout the movie, but he eventually states his intentions explicitly. “If my competitor was drowning, I’d walk right over and stick a hose in his throat,” Kroc says. He works past any misgivings, always with business front of mind. “Contracts are like hearts. They’re made to be broken.” And Kroc breaks both in this film. However, not without reason.
‘Contracts are like hearts. They’re made to be broken.’
Early in the film, he looks ready to fold. Failing to sell six-spindle milkshake dispensers, ignoring refund requests, and slamming his car trunk in frustration — Kroc’s brooding face seethes through his rain streaked windshield when he fails to land yet another sale. There’s no “paperwork” to do when he hangs up on his wife to end an awkward conversation about his business struggles. Instead, he ritualistically puts on a self help vinyl record and falls asleep to its truism to get through the next day.
For people that eat at McDonald’s today, The Founder doesn’t change much. When diners want a cheap burger, the golden arches are there. And if movie fans want a film that’s at once tragic, educational and gripping, The Founder is there. But for people ruminating on the ethics of business, the film asks: how much success is okay to seek?
“When will it ever be enough?” asks Kroc’s first of three wives, Ethel (Laura Dern).
“Honestly, probably never,” answers Kroc.
Does McDonald’s feed 1% of the worlds population every day, or does it only serve 1% of the worlds population daily? The singularly vicious appetite for success that Kroc embodies in The Founder is worth beholding, if only to glimpse the moral struggles that come with great success.