The Founder (2016)

Directed by John Lee Hancock

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The Founder is a run of the mill rags to riches story that places a familiar story arc onto something recognizable, in this case McDonald’s.  A lot of movies are made in this fashion, telling more or less the same story but in a difference circumstance, using names or things we’ve heard of in order to pull the audience into the theater.  Sometimes movie studios will buy unique, original scripts which they realize they don’t know how to sell, and then they end up folding that unique, original script into an existing franchise like the latest James Bond or Mission Impossible movie.  The point is that the studio doesn’t think the movie can sell unless there is some kind of marketable asset (Tom Cruise!) on the movie poster.

But The Founder ends up subverting its genre ever so slightly if only because our protagonist turns out to be more Walter White and less Dennis Quaid from The Rookie, another John Lee Hancock directed movie.  Hancock has also directed The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, and if those movies have anything in common it’s a desire to attract as wide an audience as possible.  Those movies are the opposite of edgy and the antithesis of insightful.  That might sound a little abrasive, but I don’t mean it to be.  Hancock’s movies are crowd pleasers.  You’re meant to walk in, get exactly what you expect and then leave happy, presumably to go home and procreate or something, I’m not sure.

Really Hancock’s movies come across as studio movies.  Did Hancock really direct them or did he just accept every studio note?  Again, that sounds abrasive, and I really don’t mean it to be.  Making a movie is hard enough, from what I’ve been told, and Hancock has demonstrated the ability of making a safe picture that does what it’s supposed to do.  It’s not like every director who sets out to win an oscar actually wins that oscar.  But Hancock makes moves that make a nice amount of money and make people happy, and we need those movies too.

Now, I say all this to get to the point of how The Founder almost works against all this.  It starts as a movie about a struggling salesmen whose struggles are so apparent yet his persistence so strong that we have to admire him.  Step one to making us care about the protagonist, complete.  Then he’s given an opportunity, one he pursues more than receives, and again we admire his persistence.  But this guy is Ray Kroc, and he’s the bad guy in the McDonald’s story.

Kroc only ever cares about the money, but at the start we don’t hold this against him because he’s a salesman, and he’s never not upfront about going after the money.  The Founder speaks on several occasions about what makes America great and how McDonald’s is the symbol of the new America.  Most of this comes from Kroc, and even though he has an agenda, he seems to be onto something.  While trying to convince the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their burger joint, Kroc compares the symbol of the golden arches to the flags of a courthouse and the crosses of churches all across America, and this is the point that convinces the previously reluctant brothers to buy into his plan.

Kroc sells the brothers on America, and while he convinces them that this new arrangement fulfills their version of America, it really fulfills his.  Kroc’s rise from next to nothing, financially speaking, to multi-millionaire is the symbol of the American dream, though maybe a perverted version of it.  He is egotistical, bold, aggressive and cutthroat.  Kroc’s victory is so American because he beat the odds and rose up in a world where everyone thinks they themselves can win but most people don’t.  And the McDonald brothers are the people who don’t win.  They lose, and they lose a lot.

The Founder presents both sides of the American dream.  There is the promise that hard work will get you to the top and the reality that if you don’t work the “hardest,” then people will step all over you to get to the top.  In this case the idea of hard work, though, is doing anything it takes to win, even if that means backstabbing those around you and drowning the competition at every turn.  Kroc highlights the differences between him and the McDonald brothers, seeing his relentlessness and immoral business ethics as ultimately American while the McDonald brothers’ kind-heartedness is made to be a weakness.

Ray Kroc ultimately wins, forcing the McDonald brothers out of their own company and making millions of dollars along the way.  The McDonald brothers have only their original restaurant, and they can’t even keep their own name on the sign as it is a violation of their new contract with Ray Kroc.

The bad guy wins, and the good guys, the hardworking dreamers, lose in a landslide.  But The Founder, while never disguising this reality, focuses on the winner, demonstrating how the focus will always be on the victor, particularly in the history books.

The Founder would seem to be an odd subject for a crowd-pleasing movie, and maybe it’s not at all crowd-pleasing.  But the first half of the movie, showing Kroc’s meteoric rise up the food chain fits the bill as something we would root for, cheering at the screen like we’re watching the Rocky training montage.

The movie seems to glorify Kroc’s work ethic, capitalizing on Michael Keaton’s manic energy which we showed he still has in 2014’s Birdman.  Kroc is to be celebrated because we all want to think we can be like him, working from the bottom to the top, but again like Walter White, at some point he pivots into something almost unrecognizable, if only because we don’t want to admit we’d do the same in his shoes.  The truth is, I suppose, that enough is never enough, even if we think it is.

So Kroc, I have to imagine, is always meant to be relatable, maybe even when things go bad.  Keaton does a good job portraying the dark side of Kroc’s ambitions, but I think the movie could go even further to show his own quiet evil.  The climactic moment of the movie is when Kroc forces out the McDonald brothers but gives them a handshake deal which he ultimately goes back on.  The handshake focuses on Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), as if to emphasize that this isn’t wrongdoing on Kroc’s part, just weakness on the McDonald’s side.

History remembers the winners, and in doing so glorifies them, and The Founder does the same.  It ends with Kroc on top, and then the credits begin with the energy of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky as we’re told how much money and fortune Kroc accumulated while being informed how sad the McDonald downfall was.  This information, very common in the genre of ‘real people success story movies,’ has the feeling of victory, as if we just watched the U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in the Miracle game.  The feeling we’re left with is one of admiration for Kroc, even as we know how cutthroat he was, and a feeling of “oh well” for the McDonald brothers.

‘We wouldn’t be as stupid as they were,’ we might be telling ourselves, and in doing so we are letting people like Ray Kroc off the hook.  The Founder doesn’t imply that the blame should fall on Kroc or on the McDonald brothers, but it does suggest that we end up celebrating those who win at all costs even while cautioning against them.

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