The Founder, which opens in theaters nationwide on January 20, the very day Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, is a biopic about a narcissistic businessman that, sadly, is fitting for this era during which a narcissistic businessman can apparently—well, at least for now—get away with anything.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, best known for The Blindside, and written by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler, The Founder casts Michael Keaton as Kroc, who at the start of the film, which begins in the early 1950s, is a traveling salesman trying to sell restaurant owners a milkshake mixing machine.
It isn’t just any milkshake mixer—this one can mix multiple milkshakes at once!
You feel for the hardworking, middle-aged Kroc as he lugs the heavy mixer across the country only to face rejection after rejection, building his self-esteem back up during lonely hotel room stays by listening to self-help records.
Life on the road is hard, so when Kroc calls the home office one day and learns that a restaurant called McDonald’s in Southern California has ordered a whole bunch of the mixers he is having such a hard time selling during face-to-face meetings, it’s exciting.
He gets a break—finally!
Dying to know why McDonald’s needs so many mixers, Kroc drives to California to check it out and discovers a small burger restaurant that is doing business in a new way—serving a limited menu of burgers in paper bags and shakes in paper cups to its customers and doing it fast thanks to an assembly line means of food production, which was unheard of at the time.
Kroc is blown away by the innovative and efficient approach, and he convinces Dick and Mac McDonald (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), the two brothers who own McDonald’s and created this unique system, to ink a deal that will allow him to sell McDonald’s franchises.
This will turn out to be the worst business decision ever made by the McDonald brothers (actually, there is also a doozy of a handshake deal made later in the movie) and this is the point at which The Founder, which was fun and uplifting for awhile, takes a dark turn as Kroc transforms into a person who is focused on success no matter the cost.
Kroc has a grand vision for McDonald’s. He wants to see the golden arches everywhere. But Dick and Mac are cautious and obsessed with quality control, and they don’t want to expand McDonald’s too fast or even too much, and soon enough, they clash with the ambitious Kroc, who views business as war and refuses to be thwarted.
Going rogue, Kroc takes out a second mortgage on his home to fund the expansion of McDonald’s without telling his wife (played by Laura Dern), he goes against the wishes of the McDonald brothers and replaces real milk with milkshake powder in the franchise restaurants, and he starts secretly buying the land on which the franchises will sit after realizing the power of McDonald’s as a real estate play.
Lawyered up, Kroc ultimately outmaneuvers the McDonald brothers, who are overwhelmed by his machinations, and buys them out of the business they started. Kroc does let them keep the original restaurant, though he takes away their most valued asset—the ability to use the McDonald’s name.
And that was the end of McDonald’s for Dick and Mac. Kroc didn’t just push them aside. He conquered them, took credit for all that they accomplished and built McDonald’s into a global burger behemoth.
I walked out of a December press screening of The Founder feeling angry. I thought I hated the film, but I later realized I was mad that Kroc got away with screwing the McDonald brothers, and Trump, thoughts of whom kept popping up in my head while watching the movie, got away with “winning” the election, and I couldn’t blame the film for any of it.
Beyond Kroc and Trump, The Founder is a reminder that business is full of celebrated “icons,” whose ethical failings are overlooked as long as they are innovators—everybody loves innovation—and, even more importantly, as long as the entities they run make lots of money. It’s as simple as that.
While I was writing this, I wanted to see how—or even if—McDonald’s pays tribute to Dick and Mac, so I went to the company’s website and took a look at the Our History section. Dick and Mac are mentioned by name once, but the page focuses on Kroc, who is, of course, heralded for his “passion for innovation and efficiency.”