The Founder is a reasonably solid drama, anchored in a strong central performance and a timely narrative.
In form, The Founder plays like a very old fashioned piece of prestige cinema. It is a grand and sweeping character-driving historical drama that spans a seven-year period from Dick and Mac McDonald’s first encounter with Ray Kroc to his eventual purchase of the family and business name. Unlike many contemporary historical dramas, there is no tight focus on a singular significant historical event. The Founder does not attempt to illuminate its central character through intense scrutiny of one big moment. Instead, it tries to tell the whole story.
The Founder hits all of the expected beats from a film like this. Although it is obvious rooted in a true story, the movie tracing an arc as smooth as that iconic golden “m.” This not necessarily a bad thing. The Founder knows what it is doing, and it sets out about doing it in an efficient manner. In its own strange way, this feels appropriate. The Founder is as precisely constructed as the “swift service” engine that Ray Kroc elevates from a local quirk to a national franchise. The Founder never falters too badly, never meanders unforgivably.
More than that, The Founder has the luxury of a fantastic central performance from Michael Keaton as the huckster salesman who attaches himself to a small family business and manoeuvres himself to the head of an international empire.
Much like the character to which the title ironically applies, The Founder is not modest. Then again, it is a film about the establishing of McDonald’s as a global juggernaut. McDonald’s stands astride the world, a fixture of popular imagination and subject to instant recognition. Even the restaurant’s menu items and iconography are instantly recognisable; the “Happy Meal”, the “Big Mac”, “Ronald McDonald”, the “Hamburglar.” McDonald’s is part of out cultural shorthand, one of the greatest embodiments of American capitalism.
Indeed, the brand even has its own mythology. The “golden arcs” are familiar shorthand for globalisation. The company had to rebrand it’s extra-large menu option in the wake of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. Even if they cannot recognise it by name, and even if it may not strictly be true, most people recognise some variant of Thomas L. Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”; no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other. McDonald’s is more than just a restaurant. It is an icon.
So The Founder needs grandiosity and pomp, a certain sense of self-assuredness. It helps that its central character is a traveling salesman. Roy Kroc might sell paper cups and milkshake machines, but he is an expert when it comes to puff and mythology. During one early pitch session with the owners of a modest small-scale family diner in San Bernardino, Kroc lays out his vision of that “McDonald’s can be the new American church, and it ain’t just open on Sundays.” In context, it seems like nonsense. In hindsight, it seems like foreshadowing.
The Founder is full of little touches like this, of awkward stage-managing and heavy-handed teasing. Characters in The Founder speak like they are jockeying for position in the film’s trailer, with every character seeking to distill the essence of the story (and its subjects) down to a pithy soundbyte that is jarring in the moment, but would feel right at home in a retrospective study of a culture icon. At one point, in their first scene together, Roy’s wife Ethel asks, “When will enough be enough?” In case that’s not obvious enough, Roy answers, “Never.”
In many ways, this is the central tension of The Founder. There is something slightly provocative about the film. After all, for a company with such a long shadow, McDonald’s have never really capitalised on their origin story. The company has never cultivated a mythology around its earliest days. Most passive observers of American popular culture recognise the contributions of individuals like Henry Ford and Thomas Eddison, and the empires that they built. In contrast, McDonald’s lacks that context. It is ever-present, but its history is shrouded in mystery.
As such, The Founder feels like it should be an attempt to pull back the curtain. The very existence of the film is subversive, as if trying to break down that ubiquitous iconography. To suggest that McDonald’s had a beginning is to rob it of some of its power, to reveal that there was a time when it was something smaller than what it has become. There is something almost blasphemous in the revelation that myth had a starting point that can be traced back to something tangible and real. The Founder suggests that the whole thing was an elaborate con.
However, The Founder also buys into this mythology in a way. Rather than deconstructing this romantic nostalgia by suggesting that McDonald’s was a triumph of branding or empty spectacle, The Founder instead suggests an alternative mythology. The Founder is just as couched in Americana as the brand it seeks to explore. When Roy sits down to dinner with Dick and Mac McDonald, they treat him to a story that is as much a fairy tale as any Superbowl advertisement or pamphlet. Their story plays like unreconstructed nostalgia.
Even when it comes to Roy Kroc’s manipulation of the McDonald’s brand and his usurpation of the McDonald brothers, the film seems to buy into that same nostalgia. Watching The Founder, there is a recurring sense that Roy Kroc is a mythological figure. Characters talk in vague allusions to a history already known to the audience. The Founder frames its story so that it seems fate is moving around Roy Kroc, from a conversation overheard by chance at a bank to a burger flipper who rises quickly to the top the corporate hierarchy.
This is reinforced by the sleek and polished look of the film. John Lee Hancock saturates his film with reds and yellows that subconsciously evoke the corporate branding even in early scenes and scenes that unfold far beyond the reach of the restaurant in the earliest stage of its development. When Roy is introduced to her second wife, her blonde hair and red dress make her look like a walking box of McDonald’s fries. The Founder is a very clean and very crisp picture, which in some ways works against its attempts to undercut the corporate myth.
Hancock seems almost seduced by Kroc’s story, sucked in by the narrative that he is trying to create. Hancock’s whimsical and nostalgic sensibilities worked reasonably well in the context of Saving Mister Banks, a film about Mary Poppins produced by Walt Disney. However, that cheery mythmaking was comfortable fit for a feature film fashioned as a loving ode to the original owner of the company footing the bill. At times, The Founder demands a rougher edge.
However, The Founder works in spite of itself. A large part of that is down to the central casting of Michael Keaton as Roy Kroc. Keaton plays Kroc as something of an enigma. The question is never whether Kroc is lying or telling the truth, the challenge is always determining whether Kroc actually believes anything that he says. Keaton’s performance is incredibly mannered and rehearsed, suggesting a character constantly performing for whatever audience has assembled around him. Every gesture is exaggerated, as his eyes perpetually scan his audience.
Kroc is a compelling and fascinating character. The Founder positions the salesman as a corporate cuckoo, a man without an ounce of originality or talent, but with the ability to recognise the usefulness of those attributes in others. Kroc is constantly recycling and stealing. He borrows speeches from self-help records. He seduces and marries the wife of a business colleague. He hangs Dick McDonald’s sketches on his wall as if to claim them for his own. He even appropriates the restaurant’s origin story to tell over dinner.
The Founder suggests that this is an intrinsically American experience. The film is contextualised in terms of Americana, from the retro diners to the vintage cars. It is no coincidence that Kroc frames his journey in terms the echo “manifest destiny.” He follows Route 66 westward towards California and the Pacific, in pursuit of his dream. He discovers that money and power is not rooted in innovation or ingenuity, but instead in ownership and usurpation.
“You are not in the hamburger business,” Harry J. Sonneborn explains halfway through the film. “You are in the real estate business.” In effect, Roy Kroc’s manipulation of Dick and Mac McDonald effectively boils down to that most fundamental of American origin stories, the land-grab couched in mythology and disguised in fairy tale. The Founder is ultimately a conceptual as much as a literal land-grab, with its protagonist laying claim not only to the restaurant itself, but also to the dream and imagination that inspired it.
Indeed, there is a sense that Robert D. Siegel’s script is very much at odds with John Lee Hancock’s direction. Siegel’s script is very much a subversion of the American frontier myth, the tale of a man who has literally run out of west when he accepts that there is nothing new for him to discover or to create, and instead embarks upon a brutal colonisation. Hancock’s direction seems most in step with Siegel’s script in those wonder shots of Kroc surveying empty lots, his shadow falling over broken earth and dirt filtering through his fingers.
Hancock buys a little too readily into that fairy tale, but Keaton’s performance is just powerful and just raw enough that occasionally shreds through. There is no denying that The Founder feels much more relevant this year than it would have in an earlier awards season, tapping into that same anxious desire for an American mythology and the notion that persistence and commitment trump ability or vision. Roy Kroc is very much an archetypal deconstruction of the American Dream, but he seems more of this moment than he might otherwise be.
The Founder lacks the razor-sharp edge needed to properly tell a story like this. Hancock lacks the clinical distance and detachment that David Fincher brought to The Social Network, a relatively recent film that touches on many of the same ideas in a much more satisfying manner. Still, The Founder flows relatively smoothly, aided by a sense of increased relevance and Hancock refusal to intrude upon Keaton’s powerful central performance.