Hero or villain? That’s the question “The Founder” asks about its subject, McDonald’s main man Ray Kroc. Does he deserve a break today for changing the way America eats or is he a ruthless businessman to be grilled for his heavy handed tactics?
When we first meet Kroc (Michael Keaton) he’s a door-to-door salesman hustling a new fangled milk shake blender. Despite his slick pitch his milk shake maker isn’t shaking up the fast food business. Restaurant after restaurant turns him down, until a small San Bernardino burger shack run by Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald 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 an almost military efficiency.
The MacDonald brothers streamlined their kitchen for maximum productivity, maximizing every inch of space to bang out burgers in under thirty 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 dealed, went behind their backs and worse, tampered with some of their recipes. Keaton does a great job of slowly revealing Kroc’s duplicity and dive into self-indulgence as he morphs 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. 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. Along the way are feisty and bittersweet supporting performances from Offerman and Lynch and perfect period production design that evokes the spirit of the time.
However, as much as the film is about the U.S.’s growth spurt in the 1950s, it is also a portrait of the kind of never-say-die spirit that evokes the very best and worst of the American Dream. Kroc is insufferable, a ruthless conniver who grabbed the gold ring, or, in this case, arches. Is he a hero or villain? Depends on which side of the arch you side with.
“The Founder” isn’t about the end of the story. Most people know about the MacDonald’s phenomenon—they feed 1% of the world’s population every day—but fewer realize the journey it took to get there.