In the almost eight decades since its establishment, McDonald’s has become as synonymous with American culture as baseball. And they continue to feed millions of people in America and around the world every day. I like McDonald’s, and I patronize their establishments every so often for my favorites like McGriddles, Chicken McNuggets, hamburgers, and those tasty vanilla ice cream cones.
Lately, the fast food giant has been vilified for supposedly making Americans fatter and lazier (though I think there’s a little personal responsibility that should be tacked on to that). But the story of McDonald’s had humble beginnings, and that is the subject of the outstanding new movie, The Founder.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, this film tells the story of one of the world’s most famous brands in an entertaining and thoughtful way. It’s a story of dreams, broken trust, and endless ambition. It’s not a story of faceless corporations, but one about human beings.
Aside from the great performances and wonderful storytelling, the film has a deep thematic soul to it. The story of McDonald’s is a triumph of the American free market system, and a much-needed love letter to this much-maligned economic system these days. But more importantly, it’s a textbook illustration of what success really means from two very different worldviews.
Stuff I Liked
Michael Keaton was outstanding as Ray Kroc, the self-proclaimed “founder” of McDonald’s. He gives Kroc an interesting mix of respectable small-town gumption and slimy used car salesman-type hucksterism (which will come into play later on). If it were any other actor, Kroc might have come off as creepy or sadistic. But Keaton’s comedic timing even makes Kroc’s most unpleasant attributes entertaining.
The other outstanding performances came from John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman – who portrayed the actual founders, Mac and Dick McDonald. They played off each other and Keaton so wonderfully. Lynch was the genial, positive one and Offerman’s Dick was the more analytical realist. Both brothers trying to get a handle on this guy they wanted to trust but couldn’t completely (for good reason).
The Founder is one of the most succinct and well-told films I have seen in years. Director John Lee Hancock has a real talent for historically-based narratives. His film Saving Mr. Banks was a charming look at another American business mogul, and was one of my favorite films of 2013. Just as an example was the montage of the McDonald brothers telling their business story to Ray Kroc. It was a combination of storytelling performance, editing and wonderful comedic timing.
My hat is off to production designer Michael Corenblith and set decorator Susan Benjamin for their outstanding work in maintaining a sense of time and place in The Founder. From the sets to the props, everything came together beautifully to give this story a sense of realism and believability. There are many historical films that get lazy with this (sadly, Saving Mr. Banks was one of them).
Stuff I Didn’t Like
Though the sets and actors did outstanding jobs maintaining the time period, I was taken aback at the way vintage film footage was handled. Several times in the film, Hancock used actual footage of the period in montages, and the footage looked like it had been ripped from YouTube or Google. The same went with some vintage photos. It was poor quality and looked extremely pixelated.
In some places, the passage of time was a little too subtle. The main body of the narrative didn’t take place over a long period of time, but the last scenes took place almost ten years after the previous scenes. It would have been nice if Keaton was aged at least a little more (Ray Kroc would have been almost 70 by that point).
Stuff to Ponder
McDonald’s is a quintessential American company that came from humble beginnings to become a worldwide icon. In fact, the McDonald brothers essentially invented fast food as we know it today. Their story, as well as their dealings with Ray Kroc, is an absolutely perfect (and much-needed) love letter to American free enterprise.
Too many people today bash American capitalism and free markets, in most cases profiting from the very system they decry (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore). The Founder really puts the free market in perspective and gets the audience to look at it for what it is: a tool that is morally neutral.
Ray Kroc was a capitalist, but so were the McDonald brothers. They are two sides of the same coin, and both used the free market system to achieve something great. However, it is the motivations of individuals, not the system itself, which should be scrutinized.
Mac and Dick McDonald wanted to run a great restaurant and fairly compete by creating a better product. This increased their popularity, which lead to success. Kroc was in it to “win,” and did not care who he had to manipulate or step on to get where he wanted to go. Both of these ways of participating in the free market can happen, but is it really the fault of the system or the individuals that things sometimes go wrong?
Capitalism is a tool that can be used for good and bad. A hammer can be used to build something as easily as it can be used to break a window or hurt someone. It all depends on the motivations of the person who wields it.
Capitalism is the most free economic system on the planet, and yet people criticize is as not being “fair.” What they mean is that the wealth is not evenly distributed. But that’s because talent and ambition are not evenly distributed. It’s true that sometimes bad people get rewarded and good people get the shaft, but that is life, and it’s sad when it happens. And it doesn’t mean that the whole system needs to be jettisoned for something as inherently evil as socialism or communism.
Ray Kroc indeed represents a downside of capitalism, but what we should do is look closer, to the individual and his motivations. In The Founder, Ray Kroc doggedly pursued success all his life, frustrated with what he perceived as “failure” early on. His obsession with success blinded him to the wonderful life he already had: a good home with a family.
In a moment of quiet frustration, Kroc’s first wife Ethel asked him when would enough be enough. Kroc responded with an honest “probably never.”
By all secular definitions, Kroc was a huge success – building a fast food empire virtually from the ground up and making a lot of money in the process; the American Dream, so to speak. But in his pursuit for more and more notoriety and wealth, he pushed people aside and actively sabotaged some to get where he wanted to go.
Using his aforementioned homespun charm and used care salesman slickness, Kroc rose to fame and fortune on the hard work and innovation of the McDonald brothers, and then outflanked them – actively taking credit for their innovation. Also, Kroc divorced Ethel because she wasn’t being supportive enough of his dream, and found someone else he deemed better suited to his aspirations.
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Matthew 16:26
The Bible is full of stories of people seeking contentment from the material things of the world – seeking fulfillment and purpose in the pursuit of earthly splendor and pleasures. And the inevitable conclusion reached is that there can be no peace in the pursuit of the material because there will always be something more that keeps us wanting.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (6:19) Earthly wealth will do us no good, eternally speaking. The monuments we build to ourselves, all our earthly possessions, will one day become dust. So we must not become occupied with accumulating these things. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter.
There is nothing wrong with going into business, doing something well, and getting rewarded monetarily for it in the process. The McDonald brothers were an example of that ideal. They were content doing what they were doing, and doing it well. I’m sure they would have eventually franchised more than they did before Kroc came in, but they wanted to do it their way, which was far less aggressive than Kroc’s, focusing on quality instead of quantity.
In the final scene of the film, as Kroc is practicing his speech, there seemed to be a moment where he is filled with a twinge of regret for the things he had done to the McDonald brothers and his first wife. And though this is pure speculation on my part, his fervent support of charities in his later years may have been a way of coping with his guilt.
So What I’m Trying to Say is
The Founder is a great American story, thoughtfully told. Great performances, excellent directing and a succinct script make this film a joy to watch. John Lee Hancock has a real talent for making heartfelt real-life American stories, and I hope he continues to make movies like this one. I’m looking forward to adding this movie to my home collection when it comes out on Blu-ray.
This film also has a solid thematic core. It’s a tale of the upside and downside of capitalism. But unlike many modern filmmakers, it doesn’t blame the system, but the individuals who participate. Ray Kroc could be used as a model for free markets – and his motivations bring up the biblical truth that money and fame will bring no one true peace in this world. And true success in life comes from hearing the King of Kings tell us one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
The Founder (2016)
The Weinstein Company
Starring Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman,
John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson and B.J. Novak
Written by Robert Siegel
Directed by John Lee Hancock