Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s Corporation Founder and former CEO, is a pivotal yet obscure figure to the billions of people around the world that eat at his restaurant every day. His legacy is finally explored in a major motion picture with John Lee Hancock’s The Founder (2016). Michael Keaton follows award-winning performances in Birdman and Spotlight with a stunning take on Kroc that both shows the man as a product of his time and as someone constantly trying to transcend its limitations. Keaton’s finest talent as an actor is to bleed dry the unlikable qualities of his characters and locate their last remaining bits of redeeming integrity. He transforms writer Robert Siegel’s story from a script to a pilgrimage about an enigmatic visionary, who, to paraphrase Kroc’s famous words, was in the right place at the right time and did something about it.
The Founder gives us a deeper understanding of Ray Kroc by depicting him as a product of mid-20th century aspiration. Mobility is the major theme of the film, in both the physical and financial senses. We first meet Kroc as a milkshake machine salesman crisscrossing the United States in 1954. It’s important to remember the context of this moment in history. Nine years after World War II ended, America was an affluent nation. Government funding like the G.I. Bill helped returning soldiers afford college educations, stable homes, and reliable automobiles. Suburban communities sprang up across the nation. And the Federal Aid Highway Act would be signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in two short years. Cars and the freedom they afforded were the linchpin of this cultural revolution. Ray’s recognized that Americans were living at a faster pace and that food service had to keep up.
That awareness draws him to the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino, California. Dick, played by Parks and Recreation he-man Nick Offerman, and Mac, played by John Carroll Lynch, probably most recognizable for his roles in American Horror Story and TURN: Washington’s Spies, wow Kroc with their signature Speedy System. Derived from Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line process, the Speedy System dispenses with all wasted motion and turns out the most hamburgers possible per batch. A complete meal consisting of a hamburger, an order or french fries, and a Coke took only an astounding 30 seconds to reach customers’ hands. As the McDonald brothers explain their research methods to Ray, that wide-eyed mischievous Beetlejuice gaze creeps into Keaton’s eyes. The combination of innocence and calculation is Ray Kroc. We get to discover him along with Keaton through that one gesture.
In what I believe to be the most poignant scene of the film, Ray goes to a movie theater to see On the Waterfront, the 1954 Marlon Brando classic. The implicit reference is to Brando’s “Terry” lamenting his failed boxing career. We don’t hear the famous lines, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it,” but the silent association with worrying about failure is even more powerful. We root for Ray to prevail. He goes back to the brothers with a powerful vision: McDonald’s as the next American church; the Golden Arches becoming just as iconic as Old Glory.
As a business venture hatches, we get to know the complexity of Ray Kroc. His vision is to franchise, franchise, and franchise. His drive to open the first McDonald’s in Illinois leads to a desire for expansion across the midwest. The brothers see this as overreaching, and it’s not long until conflict develops. Ray worries he can’t possibly stay true to the brothers’ core standards and still create a fast food empire. That’s when Kroc’s story really begins. Our trust in Ray is compromised by a series of decisions that blur the lines of ambition and exploitation. In the hands of any other actor, the character might become repulsive. However, Michael Keaton’s genius keeps us invested, like we were plunging into the empty box for that one last french fry.
The Founder deals with ethical issues like the value of a name, treatment of concepts versus people, and the struggle for self-preservation. It’s especially relevant in 2017, when our president’s ego-maniacal personality and take-no-prisoners business ethic helped him earn a seat in the White House. Michael Keaton pulls off the role with help from great performances by Laura Dern as his neglected wife, Linda Cardellini as his inspiration, and BJ Novak as the financial advisor that enabled his fortune. I give The Founder 5 out of 5 hairpieces. It’s a well-done biopic that educates us about an important pop culture phenomenon and remains entertaining from title to credits. Check it out in theaters now, and feel free to sneak in a Big Mac.