Upon first glance, 2016's The Founder, which details the rise of McDonald's (sort of) founder Ray Crock, is a paint-by-numbers Oscarbaiting biopic that could have come and gone with barely a whimper. It was released by The Weinstein Company at the end of 2016 to drum up award season buzz, featured a resurgent Michael Keaton as the lead and let him shine, and it told the origin story of an American cultural icon. The director, John Lee Hancock, has made a career of turning out especially turgid, crowd-pleasing trash like The Blind Side.
So one might be forgiven if they expected The Founder to be a rose-tinted look back on how an archetypal American salesman built a global empire up from his bootstraps using nothing but some old-fashioned grit and moxy. This film could easily have played out as a sanitized cookie-cutter re-imagining of the American success story, where the infallible tools of capitalism allowed an American cultural staple - the humble hamburger - to dominate global markets through the ambition and visionary genius of a driven entrepreneur promoting an exceptional product. It's a quintessential version of the American Dream.
But that is not what this movie ended up being. The film opens on Keaton as Crock, living a middling existence as a traveling salesman in the Midwest, neglecting his wife and yearning for something greater, always on the lookout for the deal of a lifetime. As he moves through the country, he dines on hamburgers and hot dogs at drive-in restaurants and eventually stumbles on the original McDonald's in San Bernardino. There he discovers that the McDonald brothers have revolutionized fast food by employing an assembly line concept, narrowing the menu down to three core items (burgers, fries and shakes) and targeting suburban families.
The McDonald brothers are obsessed with quality, and are reluctant to franchise their concept for fear of diluting their high standards. Fast-talking Crock eventually chips away at their illusions of integrity and convinces them to give him a free hand in promoting and expanding the brand. The film drums up dramatic stakes by having Ray's ambition clash with the brothers' fidelity to their principles, and he eventually buys them out, screws them over and turns McDonald's into the globe-spanning empire we know today. In the process he ends up claiming the mantle of founder for himself and all but extinguishes the McDonald brothers from the history of the company.
I was pleasantly surprised that this film didn't try to soften the edges, admitting frankly that the global success of the McDonald's brand and the personal success of Ray Crock came from a combination of innovation, ingenuity, hard work and hustle mixed with back-biting, exploitation, deception, theft, and a general willingness to do whatever it took to get ahead. Typically, when Americans look back on our successes or ruminate on the hagiographic purity of the American Dream, we focus on the first part of that equation - the ingenuity, the hustle. Those are undoubtedly important elements in the alchemy of the American experiment. But it is also important to acknowledge the back-end of the equation, the dark and often exploitative foundations of American capitalism, where success often comes at the expense of others and greed is fetishized as intrinsically good or desirable. In a competitive system that rewards winners and forgets losers, those who seek to extinguish their competition at all costs will naturally prevail and be enshrined in the history books and this film does not shy away from that.
The Founder deftly probes this complex dynamic and opens it up for scrutiny, analysis and reflection. The film shows that the mild-mannered McDonald brothers had the innovative spark that revolutionized the fast food business model - they embody the kind of inventive ideal that sustains progress, and that forms the back-bone of America's ideas about itself. Then it shows how an opportunistic hustler, consumed by a pathological need to succeed while crushing all competitors, embodies darker and less-talked about elements of the American Dream. In order for the innovation to reach its full commercial potential, it needed a remorseless salesman to take it, shamelessly promote the hell out of it and then not give a fuck about who he ran over in the process.
This subversive rendition of the American creation myth is set in the nostalgic glow of the 1950s and 60s, and takes full advantage of Michael Keaton's singular mix of charm, charisma and dark intensity to give the film real legs, and bring the character of Ray Crock into sharp and compelling focus. By the end of the film, Ray Crock has everything he wants - a hugely successful global corporate empire; a vast fortune; fame and recognition; all competitors or friends or sharers of glory firmly vanquished. He even gets the girl (whom he seduces away from one of his business partners). Yet as the film closes we are left to ask - is this a triumphant success story or not? The fact that this is not a question we can easily answer speaks to just how sneakily good, smart and subtle this film is and how deeply it penetrates into the messy, confusing, and contradictory fabric of the American experience.