Who hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s at some point in their lives? But how many of us know the story of how the fast food restaurant chain came to be? “The Founder” is not the story of the origins of the first restaurant, although it does give us the McDonald’s brother’s story but rather it is about how Ray Kroc took over their name and used it to form his own corporation. Normally, I wouldn’t find the story of outright greed and capitalism especially interesting but between Michael Keaton’s dynamic performance and some brilliant storytelling techniques, I was glued to my seat.
The first shot is a close up of Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc speaking. That focus on him continues crystal clear throughout the film. It is 1954 and Ray Kroc is selling milkshake makers in the Midwest. He makes a decent living but is on the road continuously, neglects his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and has a hunger for something more. He finds what he is looking for when he learns of a diner in San Bernadino that is ordering an unusual amount of milkshake makers. He decides to go visit the enterprise and discovers high quality food, fast service, disposable packaging, and family focused customers. He becomes excited by the business and convinces the McDonald brothers, Maurice “Mac” (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) to share how they created their restaurant by taking them out to dinner.
The next day, he comes back and tells them they need to franchise. They explain to him that it’s been attempted before but quality control could not be maintained. Despite having nine franchise restaurants, they aren’t interested in expanding. Rejected, Ray goes home. But as he continues to sell his milkshake machines, he notices that the towns he visits have commonalities to them and he can’t quite lose the idea that the now famous golden arches have something in common with churches and American flags. He goes back to the brothers and convinces them that they need to expand so that they can create the “New American Church.” The brothers are skeptical but agree to allow him to become the new head of franchising. They draw up a contract that they must approve changes and Ray only gets 1.4% of profits from the franchises.
From this point, events happen quickly. Ray discovers that if he sells the franchises to motivated and hardworking men and women, the franchises can be successful. He ensures that they are trained in the expectations for the business. As he becomes more successful, tensions surface between him and his wife, especially after he meets Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a franchise owner who shares his ambitions and dreams. His phone calls with the McDonald brothers get increasingly strained as he wants to make changes and they resist his suggestions, wanting to grow the business slowly and keep the quality under control.
Eventually Ray meets Harry J. Sonneborn (B. J. Novak), a financial adviser who gives Ray the advice to buy the land under the restaurants. Ray follows the suggestion and this gives him the ability to incorporate, buying out the McDonald brothers. He even takes their name, explained away in a discussion with Dick McDonald that the name is what helps sell the business, not the system they created. Ultimately, he becomes the owner of the business and is hailed as the founder of McDonald’s.
The first scene is brilliant. By focusing on Ray Kroc and his patter, the director, John Lee Hancock and the writer, Robert D. Siegel tell you without words who Ray Kroc is. They open and close the film with this close up shot of Michael Keaton. This leaves the viewer not only with the true focus of the movie but also allows us to begin the movie with Ray Kroc’s fast talking salesman speech and his ability to use buzz words to create sensation, such as McDonald’s is family. This razzle dazzle patter is continued throughout allowing us to see in part what made the man successful.
The story is balanced between Ray Kroc’s story and the viewpoint of the McDonald brothers. It presents the viewer with both the McDonald brother’s vision and genius but also allows us to see that Ray Kroc’s persistence, determination and ability to see the marketing potential of McDonald’s are what give him the vision to create a national brand. We may not like his methods or his ruthlessness but Michael Keaton’s portrayal gives us insight into the man’s charisma and drive. Each part of the story is foreshadowed, giving us hints as to Ray Kroc’s next actions. The writers clearly show the distance between him and Ethel. They also show the immediate attraction between him and Joan. When he asks for a divorce from Ethel, there is little surprise because events have led up to the moment. When he buys out Dick and Mac, this is equally expected, including that he won’t honor his handshake deal to pay the brothers royalties. Every element is in the film for a reason and the filmmakers kept me involved in the film using humor, tension, and excellent acting.
Not only do we get both sides of the story but there were so many little pieces of history woven throughout the story. A quick check on the internet gave me the information that most of the story told in the movie is true. While the writers could have created a more scathing review of Ray Kroc, it might not have been as truthful as what we saw in the movie theater. I loved the knowledge that the first restaurant with the golden arches was built by the McDonald brothers in Phoenix, long before Ray Kroc used those arches to promote the business. Little hidden gems like this helped keep me intrigued and engaged in the movie. It is clear that original clips and pictures were provided from the McDonald family and this makes the movie even more authentic.
As for the acting, Michael Keaton was the best performance of the film. He was dynamic and charismatic, impossible to turn away from as he begins as an affable salesman who wants more and turns into a ruthless and driven CEO. He truly became Ray Kroc for me. Laura Dern illustrates her lack of ambition well, showing that she wants to be a part of Ray’s life but doesn’t quite understand his ambition. Linda Cardellini could have been reduced to a marriage wrecker but she comes across as passionate and a match for Ray. Both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play the McDonald brothers with heart and humor. Every performance in this movie is well acted and worth watching.
If there are any small flaws, it is a bit of predictability in some scenes and some glossing over of Ray Kroc’s ruthlessness. There are hints of how deep his manipulations and maneuvering are but his passion and drive are what the writers focus more of the energy of the film on. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the formation of the McDonald Corporation as well as getting to see more of Ray Kroc’s cutthroat business practices.
If you like Michael Keaton, however, you will love this film. It is engaging, historically accurate, and shares a history of the Golden Arches that I never knew existed. Anyone who loves history will enjoy this movie. Really, anyone who’s ever eaten at a McDonald’s will find this a fascinating tale of the “Founder” and will thoroughly eat up the story.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Directed by John Lee Hancock (SAVING MR. BANKS), THE FOUNDER features the true story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential. Writer Robert Siegel (THE WRESTLER) details how Kroc maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman
Written by: Robert Siegel
Directed by: John Lee Hancock