Give some credit to director John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie,” “The Blind Side”): Although the Ray Kroc biopic “The Founder” he directed is set in the period from 1954 to the early 1970s, there’s nary a scene on screen that doesn’t appear to be an authentic recreation of suburban America fifty or sixty years ago.
The cars, the clothes, the sets and settings not only captured the styles, the sensibilities, even the signage — the original McDonald brothers’ hamburger stand featured a huge sign inside the front windows reading, “We Use Only Government-Inspected Beef” — of that postwar generation, but much of the social interactions that today seem dated, like a mom and her two young daughters sitting down on a bench outside the McDonald’s restaurant to eat their burgers and fries with nary a thought as to the man (Kroc) sitting next to them.
There are the classic scenes of 1950s drive-in restaurants, with girls on skates, food on plates and long waits for the tray full of food hung on the car window, not to mention plenty of extras portraying rowdy members of “the wrong crowd:” Teenagers.
But there’s a message to be parsed from the storyline of how Kroc, who’s now credited with “launching” the McDonald’s fast-food empire, went from struggling salesman to global entrepreneur, and it’s one that resonates with eerie timeliness in 2017.
An inspired choice for the lead
But that’s not to overlook the film’s compelling story arc, nor the star turn by Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc.
Keaton, ironically, was an inspired choice to play the lead role, if you accept the movie’s characterization of Kroc as a highly ambitious though less-than-successful salesman whose horizons far exceeded his accomplishments.
Keaton was a bona fide “A Lister” in the 1980s, starring in such comedy hits as “Mr. Mom,” “Night Shift,” and “Beetlejuice,” followed by a surprisingly nuanced performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the first two installments of the Warner Bros. film franchise. But he never ascended to the pantheon of Hollywood elite, and as he continued to perform in an eclectic series of movie roles in the 1990s, few of his films met with either industry buzz or critical acclaim.
Likewise, Keaton’s Ray Kroc is portrayed as a struggling salesman advancing into middle age along with his dowdy suburban wife (portrayed by a near-somnolent Laura Dern) without having ever hit a home run with any of the Fold-a-Nook or MultiMixer sales schemes he relentlessly peddled. But he never loses his energetic pursuit of “the brass ring,” as he later pitches to potential McDonald’s franchisees.
The seminal moment of the film occurs when Kroc drives out to California, because the McDonald bothers have ordered eight MultiMixers, each capable of making six milkshakes at a time, for their single San Bernadino drive-in restaurant selling 15-cent hamburgers and 19-cent cheeseburgers.
Inside, an incredulous Kroc witnesses what the brothers have dubbed the “Speedie System,” an ingenious arrangement of grills, fryers, milkshake mixers and soda spigots — originally designed, according to the movie, with colored chalk on a tennis court, with employees practicing the movements needed to efficiently prepare and serve hundreds of customers every hour.
Inspired, Kroc returns a few months later and standing in front of the brothers utters the operative word of the movie, the era and ultimately the entire foodservice industry: “Franchise.”
He quickly capitalizes on his vision, signing a contract with the brothers to open a slew of stores across the Midwest, which he quickly begins doing. Along the way, as those familiar with McDonald’s history know, Kroc adopted the one key tactic that not only turned him into a multi-millionaire, but laid the groundwork for the eventual usurpation of the brothers he adroitly manages in the last reel of the film: He buys the land underneath his restaurants, then leases it to the franchisees.
As his soon-to-be CEO Harry Sonneborn, played by B.J. Novak of “The Office” fame, suggests, “That way, if the [franchisees] don’t maintain the quality, you revoke the lease. That’s how you control them.”
The McDonald brothers, though clever, ambitious and hardworking, were-ill-equipped to embrace the vision of a national chain of restaurants, nor temperamentally suited for what Keaton’s character aptly calls the “rat-eat-rat” world of business.
In a memorable line, he answers the brothers’ objections to his hardball tactics by saying, “If I saw one of my competitors drowning, I’d go get a hose and stick in his mouth.”
Which brings us to the moral dilemma overlaying the rise of Ray Kroc.
Those who are familiar with the history of McDonald’s Corporation know that Kroc not only “stole” the McDonald’s name and eased the brothers out of the business, but eventually reneged on a handshake deal whereby they would have earned 1% of the company’s profits “in perpetuity,” which would now be worth an estimated $100 million a year.
On one hand, Kroc smartly — and many would say appropriately — connected the “McDonald’s experience” with middle-class, Middle American values.
“You know what every small town in America has?” Keaton asks one of the brothers early on in the company’s initial wave of expansion. “Churches, and on those churches is a cross. And on the buildings, a flag that protects those churches. McDonald’s could become the new churches of America. Flags. Crosses. And the Golden Arches.
“And it’s not just open on Sundays, boys. It’s open seven days a week.”
Indeed, the “wholesome” imagery of McDonald’s, if not necessarily extended to the menuboard, was instrumental in its incredible success. Yet even Hollywood’s treatment of one of America’s legendary entrepreneurs can’t conceal the reality that Ray Kroc screwed the original McDonald brothers out of what would have been a fortune in royalties, played hardball with both competitors and franchisees and along the way, dumped his first wife in favor of the younger, more ambitious Joan Kroc, who turned out to be as ambitious and influential as Ray himself.
In the end, The Founder leaves hanging the question of whether business success and personal integrity are mutually exclusive. Despite the veneer of his entertaining personality, even Keaton’s fictional character is hardly a role model.
The real Ray Kroc was inducted (posthumously) into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame a few years ago, and his impact on the American business landscape is undeniable, as was the influence of the global foodservice empire he envisioned and single-handedly launched.
But a full assessment of his career and his character requires much more than a two-hour movie can ever provide. □
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.