Ray Kroc changed the way we eat. He didn’t invent the hamburger, but has probably sold more burgers than anyone else.
He standardized food preparation, setting the template for fast food restaurants worldwide and built an empire based on two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.
If you believe The Founder, a biopic of Kroc’s building of the McDonald’s hamburger chain, he was also a bit of an SOB.
Michael Keaton, who plays Kroc from failed travelling salesman to a millionaire whose business card reads simply Founder, says the choices his character “makes towards the end after he becomes successful are harsh, man. And nothing I would ever do. Nothing most people would ever do.”
So, is he a hero or villain? That’s the question The Founder asks. Does he deserve a break today for changing the way the world eats or is he a ruthless businessman to be grilled for his heavy-handed tactics?
When we first meet Kroc he’s hustling a newfangled milk-shake maker. Despite his slick pitch, his blender isn’t shaking up the fast food business. Restaurant after restaurant turns him down, until a small San Bernardino, Calif., burger shack run by siblings Mac and Dick McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) places an order for six of the machines, then ups the buy to eight.
Intrigued, Kroc travels cross-country to check out the operation and finds a bustling restaurant pumping out good food with military efficiency.
The brothers streamlined their kitchen for maximum productivity, maximizing every inch of space to bang out burgers in under 30 seconds. Kroc, amazed, convinces the pair to allow him to franchise their ideas and name. Reluctant, they agree but with a strict set of rules to ensure quality control.
Their uneasy partnership becomes a powder keg when Kroc unilaterally changes how the company is run. As the company grows so does Kroc’s ego and anything-to-win attitude.
Much of the way Kroc treats his business partners in The Founder is as distasteful as The Hula Burger, his famous and failed foray into vegetarian cookery. He double deals, goes behind their backs and worse, tampers with some of their recipes.
Keaton does a great job of slowly revealing Kroc’s duplicity and dive into self-indulgence as he transforms from failure to success. His natural charisma and flair — He’s Batman! He’s Mr. Mom! He’s Beetlejuice! — brings with it a familiarity that makes sense when telling the story of one of the best known brands on earth.
As an actor Keaton brings us on side as he effectively portrays Kroc’s descent into amorality and callousness.
Like the operation that caught Kroc’s eye, the film is efficient, wasting no moves in the telling of the tale. It’s a classic story of persistence and greed and director John Lee Hancock gets right to the meat of the story.
As much as the film is about the U.S.’s 1950s growth spurt, it is also a portrait of the kind of never-say-die spirit that evokes the very best and worst of the American Dream.
On film Kroc is insufferable, a ruthless conniver who grabbed the gold ring, or, in this case, golden arches. Is he a good guy or scoundrel? Depends what side of the sesame seed bun you place the special sauce on.