A year or so ago, I had my first McDonald’s hamburger in maybe a decade, probably longer. I plead drinking — I had been out with a bunch of friends — and it was purely to stave off the next day’s hangover by getting down some grease and carbs to absorb the alcohol. But, man, that burger was delicious. Seriously. So good. (I haven’t had another one since.) They really know what they’re doing at Micky D’s.
I have also once attended what was then the world’s biggest McDonald’s, in Vinita, Oklahoma. (This was around 1989, 1990; the status of “world’s largest” has since passed on to an outlet in Orlando. Of course.) It was a glorious place, straddling the interstate in proper landmark fashion. I was on a road trip through middle America, on which it is not possible to pass a sign that reads “World’s Largest Whatever” and not stop for a good long gawk. (I presume I ate there, too. I don’t recall.) I was seeing America, and nothing is more American than McDonald’s.
Which is what makes The Founder rather horrifying. I found myself scribbling that word — horrifying — a lot during my viewing of the film, which comes to the condemning conclusion that the American dream at its apex expression is nothing more than rapacious bullshit. This is a movie that is also clever and funny; the sharp script is by Robert D. Siegel. The story it tells is rather brilliant and kind of inspiring until it turns frightening and even sinister. Its protagonist — Ray Kroc, McDonald’s innovator and later something of a business cult leader, portrayed by the intense, superb Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Minions) — is genius and evil in that banal way of greedy, insecure men; the film’s protagonist is also its villain. Director John Lee Hancock’s previous movie was Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney’s attempt to twist a tough true story into something cartoonish and suitable for mass entertainment, which is how you might describe The Founder’s Kroc in broad strokes as well. (Apparently Disney and Kroc knew each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, which means something, I’m sure. It’s not covered in either film, but now I think it needs a movie of its own.) The Founder is, like almost every other story about anything considered quintessentially American, about the twisted and not even really hidden driving force underneath it.
And it’s not even about the food! This is not Super Size Me, not a denunciation of McDonald’s as a dealer pushing junk food on susceptible consumers. It’s purely about the business side, and how the innovations Kroc brought to the industry changed America radically. Hell, the fast-food industry didn’t exist before Kroc: he invented it. As we see here, though — and as you may already be dimly aware — Kroc did not bring the assembly line to the burger joint to get you fresh hot food quickly. He was not the one to do away with girls on roller skates bringing your meal to your car in the drive-in parking lot and instead require you to collect it up yourself (presaging the widespread implementation of offloading all the work to the customer, like self-service checkouts in the supermarket today, or ATMs). All he did was pick up the ideas meticulously designed by Dick (Nick Offerman [Sing, Ice Age: Collision Course], wonderful in a dramatic role with wry touches) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch: Ted 2, Hot Pursuit) of southern California and turn them into something that the brothers had no interest in pursuing: nationwide presence and success. And cheated them in the process, naturally, because what is more American than that?
Hancock crafts what is initially a vision of midcentury American gung-ho optimism in Kroc’s discovery of the McDonald brothers. Their little operation in San Bernardino is a model of modernity, all attractive young people bustling about efficiently serving delicious burgers and shakes to eager crowds. The brothers are all shrewd innovation: the scene in which they develop their method of making burgers quick in a “kitchen” sketched with chalk on a tennis court is wonderful; it’s “like some crazy burger ballet.” It’s all rather exciting! It looks like the future! And quality control is important to them: they have a few restaurants across the region, but only a few, because maintaining a tight authority on how things are done matters to them.
And then Ray Kroc storms into their lives, an entrepreneurial monster fueled by self-help LPs; he carries a record player with him to listen to them on the road in motels! Kroc has been selling, with little success, commercial shake mixers, which is how he comes across the McDonald brothers; their anomalous huge order for mixers reflects the booming of their burger business while other similar operations seem to be dying. Kroc is intrigued, and turns his claws on the brothers… and that’s when The Founder turns into something darker, a tale of the beginning of end-stage capitalism in the 1950s as the cruel appropriation of other people’s work, threats of lawsuits, and too much profit never being enough. This is when the McDonald brothers’ individual American dream gets subsumed by the corporate version, the one with teeth and no conscience. Keaton is absolutely mesmerizing in a — yes — horrific way with his vision of McDonald’s as “the new American church,” the golden arches a sight as iconic of America as church spires and the Stars and Stripes. (And, as we now know, he made it happen.) He’s talking, too, about McDonald’s as what we might now call a “third space,” a public place as central to our lives as home and work/school (the first and second spaces). What we’re seeing here in The Founder is the beginning of the corporatization of civic spaces.
It’s amazing. It’s horrifying. It’s America.