It is practically impossible to create a biopic without passing judgment on some axis, but director John Lee Hancock comes pretty close to presenting an unbiased view of McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc in The Founder. The film details the story of Kroc discovering the original McDonald’s restaurant, the brainchild of brothers Mac and Dick, and expanding the McDonald’s empire through an aggressive franchise model. As McDonald’s restaurants pop up everywhere, Mac and Dick lose control of the endeavor, and Kroc eventually muscles the two away from the business.
There is a distinct tinge of the shady, dog-eat-dog business dealings in the film that nearly always seem to accompany films about business, but it is balanced by a genuine appreciation for innovation, dream-seeking, and capitalism. Perhaps this is the best way to think of The Founder: for every negative portrayal in the film, there is a corresponding positive portrayal, whether that is in the character, his journey, or the systems that he capitalizes upon. The result is a careful consideration of a titanic figure in 20th century business, but one that doesn’t seem to take any single stance.
The film begins with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) peddling milkshake machines, cold-calling restaurants and floundering. He is in his early fifties, and has a string of failed business ventures behind him. His sales pitch invokes “the chicken and the egg” as a metaphor for investment, and unsurprisingly fails. The inciting event for Kroc comes when a restaurant orders six of his machines, each of which can make five milkshakes at a time. Thinking this is a mistake, he investigates and finds the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
Kroc is instantly impressed by the McDonalds brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) and the assembly-line monument to efficiency that they have created in their restaurant. One of the most rousing sequences in the movie is Mac and Dick describing their life stories and how they came up with the idea for McDonald’s. It is a rousing example of innovation, productivity, and capitalism – idealized and stirring.
Keaton’ portrayal of Kroc meanders between sad-sack and captain of industry. He isn’t quite channeling his character from Birdman, but similarities exist, especially the desire to succeed and create something great. It is an accomplished performance at the very heart of the film. Had this performance faltered, the entire film likely collapses. Keaton’s success provides the foundation for the rest of the film to build upon, whether that is Offerman and Lynch conveying all the nuances of a brotherly relationship, Patrick Wilson crushing a minor role again, or Laura Linney’s quiet sadness and complacence.
As portrayed in The Founder, Ray Kroc isn’t exactly a paragon of morality. There is a hustle to his approach to business, and he shares Donald Trump’s view of a transaction: someone wins and someone loses, so you better make sure you’re the winner. Thus, Kroc is a bit of a shyster, wrestling control of McDonald’s from the brothers through legalese, technicality, and strong-arm tactics. At the same time, he holds himself and his employees to an incredibly high standard, rewards his most-talented workers, and succeeds on his own merits. The Founder seems to want it both ways, offering a view of Kroc as both heartless businessman and industrial genius. For some, this “balanced” view will work; for others, it may feel like riding the fence instead of taking any particular stand.
Tonally and thematically, the film skates a similar line. It has a reverence for success, but is wary of the methods for achieving it. It’s appreciative of the mind behind the McDonald’s empire, but recognizes that the mind belongs to an opportunist more than an innovator. The Founder seems to be forwarding a view that the titans of business, the big idea-holders, and the champions of capitalism are fundamentally flawed individuals. They’re rife with successes and failures, virtues and vices – and maybe that particular mixture is the alchemy required to produce a Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, or Ray Kroc.
The Founder stands on the strength of its performances, especially Keaton. It revels in the murkiness of the things that happened in the later life of Ray Kroc and adopts an almost documentary-style viewpoint of observation, not evaluation. This approach saps the film of its full thematic possibilities, and leaves the spectator wanting something more, though it is not clear precisely what that extra something should be. Maybe the best comparison is to a film like Trumbo, another middling biography film bolstered by an expert performance. But where Trumbo takes a philosophical stance, The Founder simply presents a slice-of-life and leaves the moralizing up to the audience.