Movie review: The history of McDonalds on display in ‘The Founder’
–There’s a famous adage, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Fittingly there’s been a lot of debate about who first offered that view of the world, but it perfectly sums up Ray Kroc, the man who’s gone down in history as the creator of the McDonald’s franchise.
In the new movie “The Founder,” writer Robert Siegel chronicles the building of the McDonald’s fast-food empire. It tells the story of Kroc, his discovery of the McDonald brothers and the partnership that spawned the most famous golden arches in history.
But like many true stories, it’s not always what you’d expect. The long gestating film – which was originally set for a summer release in 2016, then moved to fall and finally to January 2017 – features Michael Keaton and an all-star cast, and proves a fascinating and enjoyable watch.
The film picks up in 1954 as Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a traveling salesman, peddling milkshake machines. And he’s not having a lot of luck. As he travels the Midwest, he sees all manner of drive-in restaurant, the style of the day, and notices the flaws in the system. But his luck, and his trajectory, changes when he gets a call from the office. His secretary tells him a little burger joint in California has ordered six of his machines.
Believing it to be a mistake, Kroc calls to get the facts. When he learns the McDonald Brothers restaurant has demand for eight machines, capable of generating 40 milkshakes at a time, Kroc has to see it for himself. So he drops everything and drives to San Bernardino.
There he meets Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), owners of the hamburger shop and creators of the new Speedee Service System, which they originated and perfected in 1948. The brothers gave Kroc a tour and shared their story of the process that led to burger innovation.
Kroc catches a vision for what the McDonald’s brand could be, and soon convinces the brothers to let him serve as a franchise agent. Kroc builds his first store in Illinois, and sets out creating a national brand. But there are plenty of bumps along the way.
With the help of a new team, including Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) and Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke), Kroc builds the brand and builds his fortune. At the same time, he begins to encounter more conflicts with the brothers, as he tries to stray away from the controls they laid out in the original agreement. Soon, their ideological battle comes to a head.
John Lee Hancock is no stranger to bringing these true life stories to the big screen. He previously served as director for “The Rookie,” “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” He has a feel for capturing different periods and bringing out the human – and often messy – drama behind recognizable stories and brands. That’s true of “The Founder,” which is an engrossing and well-told film that captures a story of McDonald’s few are familiar with.
By now we all recognize the golden arches that have become the franchise symbol. They are synonymous with American life, and that’s a credit to Kroc’s vision. He didn’t create the Speedee Service System, but he clearly saw what it could mean to America. As captured in the film, Kroc had a vision that the golden arches, and all that meant, could be as familiar a symbol in towns across America as a church steeple and a court house. And he fought to make that vision a reality.
By the time Kroc died in 1984, McDonald’s generated more than $8 billion in annual revenue and was in 31 countries. And it’s only continued to grow in the years since. Kroc didn’t create the system, but he perfected the model and made it a national brand. And the film does a good job of showcasing that vision and the tenacity he used to pull it off.
But “The Founder” isn’t about hero worship. While you could easily come away admiring the way he created the brand, the film doesn’t gloss over Kroc’s flaws. He, by most accounts, pulled one over on the McDonald brothers, and he was a shark in her personal life, too. He cast aside his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and ended up taking the wife of one of his franchisees, Joan Smith (Linda Cardinelli).
It’s a credit to Hancock and the script from Siegel that this is a compelling story that takes an honest look at what it took to build and empire. And it’s a credit to Keaton that the film is so compelling. He does a great job of sinking into the role of Kroc and making him compelling.
The rest of the cast is good, too. Offerman is best known for his comedic work, but he’s playing a more serious role here, and does it well. Carroll Lynch is strong as Mac McDonald, too. And the rest of the supporting cast helps drive the story.
I have been looking forward to “The Founder” for months because I was fascinated by the story and how it would be put together, and this film doesn’t disappoint. It may even make you yearn for a cheeseburger.
“The Founder” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for brief strong language.
Three stars out of four.