I should have known better. The founder of one of the world’s biggest corporations – and the forefather of ‘Big Food’ – was never going to get a sympathetic treatment from Hollywood.
But for a while, director John Lee Hancock had me. The Founder – Hancock’s biopic of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc – starts promisingly enough. A down-on-his-luck travelling salesman, Kroc criss-crosses 1950s America, stopping at one lousy diner after another.
When a restaurant in the California desert puts in an unusually large order for Kroc’s latest gimmick (a state-of-the-art milkshake machine), he drives to San Bernardino to see it for himself. There, he meets Mac and Dick McDonald, proprietors of a thriving burger stand with lines around the block. They explain how they keep prices low by cutting down on overheads: No wait staff, all-disposable packaging and a menu limited to a handful of popular items. And unlike the drive-in restaurants, food at McDonald’s is served within 30 seconds, not 30 minutes, thanks to its revolutionary kitchen assembly line.
Obsessed with their brilliant business model, Kroc begs the McDonald brothers to let him franchise the restaurant. The three of them draw up a contract, and Kroc scuttles off to whip up franchisees in the Midwest.
So far, so good: A chance meeting of kindred entrepreneurial spirits gives birth to one of the greatest American success stories of all time. Hancock’s direction also makes the film a pleasure to watch and Michael Keaton is superb as Kroc.
But around the halfway point, The Founder gets preachy. Kroc’s commercial zeal sees him neglect his wife, alienate his friends and mortgage his house. But despite McDonalds’ runaway success, the paltry franchise fees are barely enough for him to break even.
Kroc’s luck changes when he meets Harry Sonneborn, an underhanded financial Svengali. With hushed tones in Kroc’s darkened office, Sonneborn convinces Kroc that he would make far more money if he owned the land on which McDonald’s restaurants were built and leased it back to the franchisee. Kroc is sold on what sounds an awful lot like modern-day serfdom and proceeds to buy up the land under every McDonald’s restaurant, including the original San Bernardino location.
When the McDonald brothers get wind that Kroc is their new landlord, their business relationship irreparably sours. Tensions had already been building: The McDonalds are suspicious of Kroc’s manic expansion of the franchise and unimpressed with his cost-cutting ideas, like using powdered milkshakes instead of ‘the real thing’. ‘This crass commercialism is not what McDonald’s is about,’ Dick McDonald pleads at one point, in an apparently bitter irony.
In the end, Mac and Dick have no choice but to let Kroc buy them out. They watch tearfully as the McDonald’s name – now a trademark owned by Kroc’s corporation – is removed from their restaurant. Apparently, the sum of $2.7 million they received is cold comfort (roughly $22 million US in today’s terms, probably the most expensive purchase of a single burger stand in American history).
The film ends in 1970 at Kroc’s Beverly Hills mansion, with Kroc practicing lines for a speech accepting an honour to be conferred on him by Governor Reagan (of course). When part of the speech alludes to him as the founder of McDonald’s, a flash of conscience crosses Kroc’s face (he stole it, after all), but it doesn’t last. Kroc smiles and staggers off like a demented villain.
Ray Kroc was, no doubt, a shrewd businessman who drove a hard bargain, but there is no evidence that he was the kind of unhinged sociopath Hancock portrays in The Founder. Kroc is driven to madness by his success, taking exquisite pleasure in steamrollering the McDonald brothers. ‘I’m national, you’re f—ing local’, he says to a distressed Dick, threatening to drown the brothers in legal fees if they try to wrest back their brand.
What should have been quite a ‘feel good’ – if complex – story becomes a tired meditation on corporate greed versus ‘the little guy’. Kroc himself is the biggest casualty: We sympathise with the earnest salesman at the beginning of the film and hate the heartless tycoon at the end. Capitalism is all well and good, until you actually end up with some capital.
Naturally, the film is mostly silent on the thousands of mom-and-pop franchisees for whom McDonald’s delivered a piece of the American dream, or the millions of jobs created, or the sizeable charitable foundations founded by Kroc during his lifetime.
It’s a wonder that the audience is spared the usual catalogue of grievances with McDonald’s: the obesity ‘epidemic’, preying on children, cultural imperialism and sundry environmental infractions. Maybe Hancock is saving all that for the sequel.
Gideon Rozner is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.