In the fall of 2004 former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler released his fourth solo album, the well-reviewed but ultimately-ignored Shangri-La. Its first single was a quirky little pop song Knopfler wrote after reading Grinding it Out, the autobiography of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. “Boom, Like That” came and went with little fanfare, and, as with many pop songs, its lyrics no doubt were ignored by most of the folks who heard it. But those who did pay attention received a pithy history lesson about the origins of the world’s largest and most profitable fast food chain. (“It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. Kroc-style. Boom, like that”)
That’s Kroc’s story in 11 words, and it’s now being told again, expanded from a five-minute pop song into a two-hour movie directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks). Starring Michael Keaton as Kroc, The Founder takes us from the Golden Arches’ humble beginnings as a single San Bernardino storefront through to its global expansion. But this is not a happy little story about a man who had a brilliant idea and then fought and fought until it became reality; it’s a happy little story about a man who stole a brilliant idea and then fought and fought until it became reality. There’s admittedly some true genius in how Kroc recognized the brilliance of the concept he ultimately stole, but The Founder doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that Kroc is ruthless, conniving businessman. Whether or not you emerge from the theater thinking that’s a good thing or a bad thing is left up to you.
At the outset Kroc is driving across the Midwest trying to sell milkshake machines to drive-ins, but he keeps getting the door slammed in his face. Then he gets a big order from the McDonald brothers, so Kroc hightails it to California to see what’s behind it. Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) give Kroc a tour of their well-oiled machine, explaining they provide “food in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.” Kroc falls in love with what he sees and talks the reluctant brothers into franchising. For the brothers, it all goes downhill from there. For Kroc, it was the first step toward his becoming one of the richest and most successful businessmen in American history.
Keaton dives into the role with a fierce determination, anchoring the film with his portrayal of a man who starts out as a slick huckster before developing into a shrewd, smart, and driven leader. His last two stellar performances in Birdman and Spotlight proved Keaton has re-emerged as one of the more reliable actors at work today, and The Founder further cements that. The first moment in the movie is Keaton as Kroc staring directly into the camera as he gives his milkshake-mixer sales pitch. We’re instantly hooked; after just a few seconds we’re willing to believe anything this man says.
Hooker, for his part, brings the story to life, presenting the 1950s in vivid detail, and though his direction is fairly run-of-the-mill, it’s all that’s required to tell a story where the main character is the focal point. Likewise the script by Robert Siegel (Turbo) in noticeably short on perspective and Kroc’s backstory, but in the moment it provides a solid look at the man on the verge of launching a fast food empire, and it’s often tinged with equal parts of drama and humor.
Ray Kroc may not have been a model of morality or fair play, but he worked the system to his advantage and changed the world along the way. He knew what he wanted, and he went after it. As Knopfler sang later in his song, “Sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b., if you wanna make a dream reality”.