“The Founder” tells the story of an American salesman desperate for mass respect and admiration, who seeks to achieve it by relentlessly seizing control of a business and growing and franchising it to the point where his net worth expands millions if not billions of times over and plenty of decent, hard-working folks are trampled along the way.
The story of Ray Kroc’s takeover of McDonald’s and transformation of a small local hamburger stand into a global behemoth in many respects reflects the American capitalist ethos and all its moral complexities, exemplifying the value of innovation and forward-thinking so often celebrated on shows like “Shark Tank,” while pointedly documenting the personal and human costs of an unrestrained pursuit of the top dollar.
It’s arriving in theaters on the same day Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, so John Lee Hancock’s movie feels very much like a film of a moment in which an apparent wholesale subscriber to the famous Calvin Coolidge assertion that the “business of America is business” takes his seat in the Oval Office.
The movie begins with Kroc (Michael Keaton) as a determined but luckless salesman of milkshake machines, pounding the pavement across the Midwest to a disinterested clientele at an assortment of drive-in spots during the 1950s. The tides start to shift when the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), proprietors of a hamburger joint in San Bernardino, California, place a large order for the machines, Ray drives out west to see more about the business, and encounters a revolutionarily efficient method for cooking and disseminating burgers and shakes.
The picture depicts a struggle for the heart of this company, as Kroc’s vision of a commercial real estate superpower runs into direct conflict with the brothers’ desire to maintain standards of quality that inevitably erode amid unconstrained expansion.
To Hancock’s great credit, and to that of his collaborators, it’s a muddled picture that resists easy conclusions.
It’s possible to recognize Kroc’s business acumen, his innate understanding of how to foment an iconic image of Americana, without shying away from what’s irrevocably compromised by the cutthroat nature of making deals on this sort of scale with little regard for the detritus left in the wake.
Keaton’s performance mixes the determination of a committed capitalist with the innate emptiness of an endless and single-minded pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of something more. The movie is as unapologetic in its depiction of Kroc’s innovations and their impact — including the company’s revolutionary ad campaigns — as it is engaged with the loneliness inherent in them. It’s a story worth reflecting upon, perhaps now more than ever.