By Kanishkaa Balachandran
There’s something misleading about the title The Founder, and as you get into the movie, you sense that this may have been deliberate. The movie tells the story of the early days of McDonald’s and the man who turned a standalone, small-town fast-food eatery into an international behemoth.
That man was Ray Kroc, and if you didn’t do any research on this movie, you would believe he was the founder. Actually, he wasn’t. He acquired the company from two brothers and the rest is history. It was Kroc’s ruthlessness and opportunism that helped him overshadow the true founders of the company, which is why Kroc is sometimes referred to as ‘the founder’.
Kroc was once quoted as saying: “I guess, to be an entrepreneur, you have to have a large ego, enormous pride and an ability to inspire others to follow your lead.”
Kroc’s ego was a bit too large for the McDonald brothers to handle, which eventually led to them conceding defeat. Kroc, though, knew what it was like to be on the other side of the fence. For years, he worked as a travelling salesman, and in the lead-up to his discovery of McDonald’s, drove around the country selling milkshake machines. It was a soul-destroying job, and his ego would be bruised when potential buyers literally shut the door on his face.
Michael Keaton, who plays Kroc, wins you over in the initial scenes, lugging the machine around and stuffing it in the boot of his car, staying at remote motels and dining at drive-ins. When an order for six machines comes from fast food joint called McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California, he traverses the country to meet his buyers, unable to comprehend this unforeseen demand. He is mesmerised by the concept of being able to buy a burger, fries and coke in under 30 seconds. This was in 1954; McDonald’s started in 1948. Why hadn’t the rest of America woken up to this radical concept? He wanted to change that.
Kroc, by now a 52-year-old weary salesman, suddenly had a spring in his step. One of the most engaging sequences in the movie is when the brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, tell their story to a fascinated Kroc over dinner. Through a series of quick flashbacks, the brothers explain why the once popular concept of a drive-in, with pretty waitresses, had to be abandoned in favour of asking customers to walk over to the counter, order and pay up. Items that didn’t sell well were dropped from the menu. Young and old lusted after the burger-fries-coke combo. Keep it minimal and simple. The brothers also described how they worked out their factory assembly line system to churn out orders by the dozen within a minute.
This was worked out painstakingly at a tennis court with chalk marking out the various sections and several mock drills. It was radical, and the possibilities endless. It was the latter that caused the shifty relationship between the brothers and Kroc. The brothers were reluctant to expand and were content being rock stars in their own backyard. Kroc convinced them to franchise outlets to him in his home state of Illinois at the other end of the country.
The tension between the two parties is portrayed well throughout the movie, with Kroc having the temerity to hang up on Maurice several times early in their partnership. Frustrated at the conservative attitude of the brothers, Kroc buys out the company in 1961. A series of loopholes and inconsistencies in this deal sees the brothers being completely sidelined.
Kroc doesn’t exactly come across as a Mr Nice Guy, but even as his character turns negative, you can’t dislike him entirely. In the initial years, Kroc slogged his pants off in his expansionist journey and ran into debt. He also found, to his horror, that the brothers gave him a raw deal. Keaton deserves credit for carrying the audience on his journey through his personality alone.
The Founder is more about Kroc and less about McDonald’s. It occasionally drifts towards staid jargon on what makes a good salesman and motivational speeches, leaving you to wonder if you were watching a corporate video. The movie ends with a message portraying McDonald’s as a godsend, feeding 1% of the world’s population, while the side-effects of obesity in children and young adults are left out and not surprisingly so.
The Founder keeps the McDonald’s story simple, just like the menu in the early days. It is, a family movie, meant for the target customers of the fast-food chain.
The Founder is a 2016 American biographical drama directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Robert Siegel. The film stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc and portrays the story of his creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard ad Maurice McDonald . The film premiered in the United States at Arclight Hollywood on December 7, 2016, and opened nationwide on January 20, 2017 by The Weinstein Company. It has grossed $17 million worldwide.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a free lance film, cricket and travel writer
(The featured image at the top shows Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc with his staff in front of McDonald’s)