From the trailers for The Founder, a film about the rise of Ray Kroc and the McDonald’s brand, you could be forgiven for expecting a number of things. Firstly, you might expect a film about showmanship and a continuation of the hyper-theatrical style that has marked Michael Keaton’s comeback in the wake of Birdman. Secondly, you might expect a lovingly etched period piece, full of fetishistic details to place, atmosphere and historical milieu. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you might expect a film that satirises and queries Kroc’s role in the acquisition of McDonald’s from the original McDonald brothers as an indirect commentary on the enormously exploitative role that the franchise plays in the United States today.
To some extent, all of those factors do play a role in the film as it reaches us, not least because The Founder is quite ambivalent and often contradictory about how it depicts and interrogates Kroc. Nevertheless, this was, on the whole, a far milder film than I was originally expecting, featuring one of the most toned-down performances from Keaton in a long time, which is really saying something given how much license he might have been given here to really ham it up. Part of that mildness stems from the opening scenes, which follow Kroc’s travelling salesman career as he moves from town to town across the Midwest, peddling ridiculous items to disinterested drive-in franchises and delivering the same corny speeches and pitches with less and less conviction. Not only do these scenes – somewhat surprisingly – recall Albert and David Maysles’ Salesman, but the film increasingly pay homages to the Maysles’ documentary style and subject matter, with a critical later turning-point revolving around a Jewish salesman who specialises in palming off gilded copies of the Bible. Even at the beginning, however, that documentary mildness makes itself felt, as John Lee Hancock mines Kroc’s monologues less for their theatricality than for their expository style, leading to a film that is quite expository in turn, although never in an overbearing or heavy-handed way.
Instead, this is a simply a film that is probably quite true to Kroc’s trajectory in that there are large numbers of incidents in which it is necessary for characters to explain concepts or processes to other characters. Far from making the film feel bogged down, however, these explanatory sequences work quite well to capture the originality of the McDonald’s brand, a process that starts with Kroc receiving an inexplicable eight orders for a milkshake machine from a pair of brothers working out of San Bernardino and travels cross-country to see what kind of enterprise they have going. Once he arrives, he meets Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald, who quickly introduce him to a revolutionary new concept – fast food – as the logical evolution of the drive in. From a contemporary perspective, it’s quite startling to think of a fast food as a new idea – how had nobody thought of it earlier? – and the film quite elegantly makes its novelty feel fresh by drawing parallels to cinema, with the McDonald brothers going to some length to explain that they only got into the fast food industry in the first place after having a shot at owning a movie theatre, only to find that the Great Depression made people hungry for cheaper and more immediate forms of gratification.
The spectacle of the original San Bernardino McDonald’s as the successor of the failed McDonald’s theatre is the first in a long series of implicit connections between fast food and cinema architecture, in a film that frequently feels more interested in the layout and design of the original McDonald’s restaurants than in the products they served (or is only really interested in the products as a function of the design). As a result, these early scenes between Kroc and the brothers are crucial in setting up their innovation in Fordist terms, as a Fordist approach to food, in which a symphony of standardised menu items, customised kitchens, perfectly timed and choreographed processes and fragmented and rationalised roles contributes to produce food at a rate that only White Castle had glimpsed at this moment in American culinary history. Key to that Fordist mentality is an obsession with the control over every detail of the product, to the point where the brothers refuse to pair with Coca-Cola during the early days of the franchising process because “that kind of crass commercialism isn’t McDonald’s.”
As might be expected, most of the film follows Kroc’s deal with the McDonald brothers and his efforts to expand the franchise in the Midwest, starting with a restaurant in his home town of Des Plaines and then gradually expanding out to satellite cities and, finally, to Chicago. Along the way, there are continual conflicts between the two stakeholders – framed as a distinction between Californian aestheticism and Midwestern laissez-faire hospitality – but what’s interesting about the film is that it tends to side with Kroc as the key innovator and frame the McDonald brothers as the antagonists, making for much less of a critique of McDonald’s in its current incarnation that might be expected. At an interpersonal level, Kroc is presented as bending over backwards for the franchise, putting his marriage and mortgage on the line while receiving nothing but thankless pedantry and inflexibility from the brothers, and especially from Dick McDonald, whose grow more and more furious at every effort that Kroc makes to flexibly expand his brand. In many ways, Dick’s rage is the centrepiece of the film, providing Offerman with his first distinctive role after Parks and Recreation as well as his first distinctive cinematic role full stop – his uptight Republican diction works perfectly for Dick’s frustrations, and the more he insists upon his own pedantic utterances the more powerless he becomes, in a kind of intensified, dramatic version of Ron Swanson. Ever since playing Ron, Offerman has made a certain kind of indignant, impotent libertarianism his own, but it’s perfected here in a way that turns everything you might assume about the McDonald brothers subtly awry.
As a result, it quickly comes to feel as if the McDonald brothers represent the regulatory bodies and bureaucratic architecture so heinous to a certain kind of neoliberal entrepreneurship, with the result that Kroc’s vision quickly comes to feel like a different kind of business paradigm as much as a parasitic extension of the brothers’ original concept. If anything, it’s the brothers themselves who come to feel like parasites, their “endless parade of nos” effectively forcing Kroc to cut them out for the sake of their own creation. In that sense, the subject matter of the film is how Kroc’s business vision differs, and what makes his vision so unique. Part of it has to be his willingness to use people and affective labour in a new and innovative way, with much of the film focusing on his greater aptitude for blending real and strategic relationships in ways that make it quite hard to distinguish how much respect and love he has for his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), who, even with this added level of ambiguity, has a fairly thankless role. Whereas the McDonald brothers have quite an authentic and sincere sense of family business, Kroc is great at presenting himself as the spokesman for power couples – with his wife, his friends, his business partners, his mistress – as well as orchestrating and rearranging any relationship into a power couple in which he happens to be the dominant party.
Similarly, part of Kroc’ s innovation lies in his openness to new ideas, particularly clear in a chance meeting with financier Harry J. Sonneborn, who would later turn out to be the first CEO of McDonald’s. For Sonneborn, it’s clear that Kroc is “not in the burger business but the real estate business,” and his advice to buy and lease out the land to franchisees proves critical in edging out the McDonald brothers. However, that shift from product to location is only appealing to Kroc in the first place because he is already something of a post-Fordist, late capitalist avant la lettre. While the McDonald brothers might discover a whole new way of producing burgers, Kroc discovers a whole new way of distributing burgers – and, more importantly, he discovers McDonald’s as an image or a brand, “the new American church.” Interestingly, it is the McDonalds themselves who come up with the golden arches, but for them they remain a modernist, Fordist signature, whereas Kroc envisages them as not merely a new brand but a new possibility in brand visibility, clearest in a lyrical sequence in which he compares them to all the flags on courthouses and crosses on churches that have passed across his windscreen during his long sales journeys across the Midwest. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Kroc determines to turn McDonald’s into a new American institution, “the closest thing to home,” drawing on the homeliness of the brothers’ original San Bernardino shack while bypassing them more and more at the same time.
It’s something of a twist, then, when, in their final scene together, Kroc reveals to the brothers that what initially struck him on his first visit to San Fernardino wasn’t the customised kitchen, the production line, the standardised burgers, the limited menu, the fast food concept or any of the the other Fordist innovations of which they were so proud but the name “McDonald” itself. In a fantastic climactic scene, Kroc then expounds upon what makes “McDonald” such a quintessentially American name – homely but also redolent of wide vistas and expansive possibilities – before introducing the final clause in his deal with the brothers, according to which they can no longer use their own name for commercial purposes. Far from a more aggressive and hyperactive version of the Fordist production that animated the original McDonald’s kitchen, Kroc turns out to be a post-Fordist visionary in his eye for image management as well as his prescience for a whole new era of brand visibility that was just around the corner, turning the film into something of a comparative character study in old-school business and logistical ingenuity and new-school affective labour and precarious, dispersed and flexible strategies of accumulation.
By the final act, then, it feels as if the film is largely on Kroc’s side, as it draws upon a quite dated model of self-made entrepreneurship to take a dig at all the regulatory bodies and bureaucratic procedures preventing that kind of initiative flourishing in the United States today. The problem is that McDonald’s exploitation of its workers is so visible that it is impossible for the film to really get on board with Kroc in the way that it seems to desire, resulting in a very sudden about-face in the third act in which he is abruptly demonised and Keaton just as abruptly falls back upon the more plastic and theatrical acting style that he has promulgated over the last half-decade. While it’s certainly not hard to dislike or mistrust Kroc, this transition feels too sudden and caricatured, like a sleight of hand designed to hide the fact that the McDonald brothers are the real bad guys. Sure, he may come off as grasping, but they come off as pathetic and abject, which is not to say that the film isn’t also sensitive to the trauma with which they are confronted – that of being alienated from their own name at the precise moment at which it starts to proliferate across the country. In one of the most poignant final sequences, they’re forced to take down the McDonald’s sign from their San Bernardino establishment even as Kroc plans the 100th “McDonald’s” to be built right across the road, and when Mac bewails that “we will never beat him, we will never be free of him,” it’s really his own name that he has realised will haunt him until the very end.
Still, the film encourages you to entertain the lingering suspicion that the brothers got a pretty good deal – they end up two million dollars richer despite thwarting all Kroc’s efforts to expand their brand and even then are presented as somewhat petulant and ungrateful about their new-found wealth. Similarly, while the screenplay ends with Kroc faltering and examining himself in the mirror while rehearsing a speech for “Governor Reagan,” the film’s heart is probably more with Reagan and his descendants than against them. And so it feels right that The Founder ends with two non-fictional sequences that seem designed to pay tribute to Kroc’s legacy more than anything else. The first involves actual footage of Kroc expanding upon the brilliance of the McDonald’s name – a reminder of his disingenuity, to be sure, but also a kind of insistence that his visionary moment of brand revelation in the film was grounded in fact.
The second involves a series of facts that play just before the opening credits, and while some of these are inevitably critical of McDonald’s, most paint Kroc in a relatively flattering light, reminding us that his corporation was responsible for the first woman to work on the New York Stock Exchange, the promotion of many regular workers to corporate leadership positions and the donation of hundreds and thousands of dollars to the Salvation Army and NPR. While these could conceivably be presented as indices of Kroc’s supreme duplicity, it doesn’t really feel as if they are intended that way – instead, the documentary style all comes to a head in these final moments, which give the impression of being ideologically opposed to Kroc (at least initially) but swayed by the power of indisputable and logically explained facts, which is perhaps what makes the film so powerful as propaganda as well, its very mildness concealing a quite aggressive and alienating agenda even as it invites you to sink into it in the cosiest and most comforting manner possible.