John Lee Hancock (2017)
John Lee Hancock’s new film The Founder, the story of McDonald’s Corporation’s CEO Ray Kroc, opened in wide release on January 20, though it had originally been scheduled for an August release, and had been held back with the idea that it might have a better shot at Oscar nominations if released late in the year—though it was shown in New York and Los Angeles only in very limited viewing before the first of the year. And no, it did not garner any nominations.
The film had a troubled birth: Robert D. Siegel’s script was bouncing around in 2014 without any takers. Tom Hanks was originally asked to play the part of Kroc, but declined the offer and was replaced by Michael Keaton. The Coen brothers were apparently interested in directing, but had to withdraw because filming would have conflicted with their making Hail Caesar. Hancock, who had earlier turned down the film, ultimately decided to make it after reading Siegel’s script. And then the release date kept changing. Against all odds, the movie was made, it’s out, and it’s finally come to Central Arkansas—but only at Riverdale, and who knows how long it will be there. So if you’re interested in seeing it, you’d better move quickly.
What may have interested Hancock in the story is its similarity to his earlier film, Saving Mr. Banks (which did star Tom Hanks): In that film Walt Disney cajoles P. L. Travers into selling him the rights to Mary Poppins and turning the book into a huge commercial success, while disregarding the vision and wishes of its creator. In The Founder, Kroc persuades the true founders of McDonald’s—Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald—into allowing him to franchise their restaurant idea and, ultimately to snatch it away from them, creating something they had never wanted and in fact despised. Essentially what Hancock has made in The Founder is a darker, more ethically dubious version of Mr. Banks.
The film opens in 1954, and Kroc, then a 52-year-old travelling salesman making his way around the Chicago and St. Louis area, visiting drive-in after drive-in trying with very limited success to peddle a new kind of blender that can make several milk shakes at once. He practices a sales pitch based on a “chicken and egg” argument: “Increase the supply and the demand will follow,” he tells potential buyers—eerily anticipating the global span of McDonald’s franchises. Nobody listens to him, but he persists, spending his evenings in his hotel room listening to recordings of a Norman Vincent Peale-like self-help guru asserting that persistence is the one thing that leads to success. As he psyches himself into a positive attitude, his long-suffering wife Ethel (Laura Dern) waits at home feeling neglected and ignored.
Kroc is reminiscent at this point of no one more than Willy Loman, protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a product of the same milieu, having premiered just six years earlier on Broadway. There may be an ironic allusion to this, in fact, early in the film when Kroc visits a movie house to watch Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, with eight Oscars the most critically heralded film of 1954. This apparently gratuitous scene delivers, I would suggest, the key to the entire movie. We are never shown exactly what Kroc reacts to on the screen. Initially, we may think that he is identifying with Marlon Brando, the ex-boxer Terry Malloy who is down on his luck but who “coulda been a contender” instead of a bum. Brando redeems himself in the end of the film, breaking the power of the corrupt waterfront union boss Johnny Friendly. Perhaps we imagine Kroc is envisioning his own rise from obscurity to success by championing a right cause. But think again. Johnny Friendly is played by Lee J. Cobb, the actor who had risen to prominence by playing Willy Loman a few years earlier on Broadway. The unsuccessful salesman of 1948 has become Johnny Friendly, the powerful boss who has risen to the top by ruthless tactics and the crushing of any opposition. If Ray Kroc’s story is a Horatio Alger tale of the American Dream, it is the dream as realized not by Brando but by Cobb.
The turning point of Kroc’s life comes when a small restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders six of his multi-milk shake blenders. His curiosity getting the better of him, he travels to San Bernardino to see just why this little restaurant called “McDonald’s” needs so many milk shake machines. He finds a place unlike any he has ever seen—one where he stands in line rather than parks his car and orders, gets his meal instantaneously, and is given a quality hamburger, fries, and drink for 35 cents. When the McDonald brothers show him how the restaurant works, according to a “speedee” method invented by Dick that applies Henry Ford’s assembly line notion to the production of hamburgers, Kroc is hooked and the “fast food” revolution is born.
The film follows Kroc’s talking the brothers in to letting him franchise McDonald’s and the “speedee” system, his difficulties in getting them to allow him to change anything in the franchises that might increase sales or profits, and his selling of hundreds of franchises. It also depicts his inability to make any real profit. Kroc meets a former Tastee Freeze executive named Harry Sonneborn (played by another Saving Mr. Banks alumnus, B.J. Novak), who shows him how he can make real money with his franchising by owning the land on which the McDonald restaurants sit and leasing it to his franchisees. This is the turning point in Kroc’s fortunes, and in our sympathies for him.
As Kroc amasses his huge fortune, he divorces Ethel, steals the wife of one of his franchisees, steals the McDonald’s name from Dick and Mac, defies the contract he signed, knowing he can tie them up in court costs if they try to enforce it. And he cheats them out of their share of the profits. He adds insults to injuries as he grows the company. This is not a spoiler, it’s common knowledge.
The film poses some serious questions about success and the “American dream”: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” the Evangelist wrote. Kroc has money, success, power, and a new trophy wife in the end, and is being lauded by the governor of California, a certain Ronald Reagan. But as he practices his speech in front of the mirror—as he did his sales pitch in the beginning of the film, we see him as a sham, lying (or perhaps he’s just using “alternative facts”) about having conceived of the McDonald’s process himself, and plagiarizing from his self-help recordings from the beginning. We have a good deal of respect for the McDonald brothers—who created the fast-food concept and who insisted on maintaining high quality. We have no respect for the guy who made all the money and took all the credit, getting to the top over the bodies of his rivals.
Keaton’s charm keeps us fooled into sympathizing with Kroc until well into the film, when we finally realize we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Offerman and Lynch are believable and sympathetic as the decent, innovative and hard-working McDonald brothers—often seen as lacking in vision or business acumen in more whitewashed versions of the Kroc story, but in fact honest businessmen who conducted themselves with integrity in the face of a rival lacking any normal scruples or sense of business ethics.
Some have criticized this film for failing to deal with Kroc’s flaws, but I’m not sure how it could have dealt with them more forcefully without hitting us over the head. Nor is it quite fair to blame it for not dealing with the environmental effects of the fast food industry McDonald’s spearheaded, or the company’s racial policies during the civil rights era during which the film is set. But how much can one film possibly do? This film was a morality tale about the dark side of the American dream. Let that be enough. I’ll give it three Tennysons.