The Founder couldn’t have come at a more apropos time. Though this biopic chronicling the contentious growth of McDonald’s is primarily set in the 50’s and 60’s, the notion of succeeding at all costs and building one’s brand by lying and cheating bears more than a cursory resemblance to the rise of Trump. Depending on your political outlook, The Founder is either a warning sign about rampant capitalism, or an inspiring success story of one man’s drive and chutzpah.
Michael Keaton carries the film as Ray Kroc, a struggling travelling salesman who stumbles upon a burger restaurant in California that seems to have perfected a new system for delivering food faster than ever before. Run by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), the humble duo are committed to delivering fresh and fast food to their clients, which they manage through their unique assembly-line prep system. Kroc immediately seizes on the success of the first McDonald’s, and pushes the brothers towards what would become the template for all future fast food chains: franchising.
Kroc is soon out of the gate and setting up new McDonalds locations all across the country, causing friction with the brothers as they begin to worry about how standards can possibly be kept up with such rapid growth, while quickly realizing that control of their family business is now essentially out of their hands.
Like with Mad Men, part of the fun of The Founder is witnessing the growth of an industry in its nascent period, especially with the knowledge of how it would come to be corrupted in later years. The McDonald brothers are interested in growth, but on their own slow and careful terms. They scoff at Kroc’s attempt to switch to instant milkshake powder to save money on refrigeration (he sends it to all the locations anyway), and generally resist his attempts to modernize the chain. “What’s next, frozen french fries?!” Nick Offerman’s Dick McDonald asks Kovac incredulously at one point, but the joke is on him — we know just how his resistance to mass-production will turn out for the chain.
The machinations of just how Kroc managed to finagle control of McDonald’s away from its founding brothers is the most thrilling and troubling aspect of the film. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) keeps the tone light throughout, and Kroc’s massive ego growth and increasing urge for more power and control over his dealings with the McDonald brothers is played up as rogue one-upmanship, at least until the film’s final moments, when the McDonald brothers realize just how ruthless Kovac can be.
Like Trump, Kovac’s success came through real estate. When financial advisor (and eventual President and Chief Executive of McDonald’s Corporation) Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) hips him to the fact that he is actually in the real state business as opposed to the food industry, Kovac begins buying up land across the U.S., eventually cementing the holdings that will lead to his fortune. And like Trump, his ego grows alongside his success, until he actually begins referring to himself as the founder of McDonald’s, casually absorbing the work and ingenuity of the founding brothers.
The Founder raises a number of issues about success and credit, without ever becoming a ham-fisted morality tale. In fact, it’s easy to watch this film through Kovac’s viewpoint and root for him throughout. Keaton’s performance is so humane and earnest that it’s easy to delight in the way he manages to scheme and trick his way into success — it’s the ultimate “fake it until you make it” scenario. Yet The Founder can’t help but feel slight given the current political climate. If unchecked ego, broken contracts and slimy real estate dealings can lead to the highest political office in the world, it’s hard to dredge up too much sympathy for a pair of brothers who were swindled out of their burger fortunes.
Still, Keaton’s powerhouse performance is reason enough to catch The Founder, and the film’s ambiguous portrait of Kovac lingers long after the film’s closing credits. The fact is, McDonald’s would likely never have become the global juggernaut it is today without Kovac’s greed and ambition. So why let something like the truth get in the way of such a good story?
The Founder is in theatres January 20.