Historic America Reviews

The Founder

The Founder (2016) stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who took a local California fast food restaurant called McDonald’s and turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar empire. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also directed Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Blind Side (2009).

Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines, where I grew up. I passed by the old McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never knew the story of how McDonald’s got its start. Ray Kroc himself was responsible for much of the popular mythology behind the company’s founding. His claim of being “the founder,” despite his first McDonald’s restaurant actually being the ninth, was so ostentatious, it turned out to be the perfect title for a film about his life.

The film charts Ray Kroc’s rise from struggling milkshake salesman to restaurant/real estate mogul, his tumultuous relationship with the McDonald brothers and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and his unshakable faith in persistence. The movie’s first half tells the inspiring story of how Kroc turns around his business prospects despite daunting odds. The second half shows him screwing over everyone who helped him along the way, even stealing a restaurant owner’s wife.

The Founder is historically accurate, for the most part. Some of Kroc’s relationships are simplified for the sake of plot, including omitting a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, the restaurant owner’s wife. In real life, Joan was not actually married to the restaurant owner as the film depicts, but to another man who became a manager at McDonald’s. It also omits Ray’s daughter, Marilyn.

It’s difficult to reconcile Kroc’s personality at the beginning of the film with his personality at the end. I think the filmmakers wanted to show how success and ambition corrupted him and destroyed his personal relationships. His relationship with his business partners was a little more complex, however. The McDonald brothers basically sat back and profited from Kroc’s hard work as he flew all over the country setting up franchises, while stubbornly resisting his every idea, including simple suggestions to increase profitability.

The McDonald brothers didn’t tell Kroc they already sold the rights to their name in Cook County, Illinois, where he wanted to open his first location. He had to pay $25,000 to buy out the contract. Later, when he finally bought out the McDonald brothers, they insisted at the closing negotiation the deal didn’t include their original location. So Kroc famously made them change the name and then opened a McDonald’s across the street, putting them out of business.

In the film, this negotiation is portrayed as one-sided, with Kroc simply screwing the McDonald brothers out of their royalty with a handshake deal. His refusal to honor the royalty, however, was partially driven by his belief that the McDonald brothers screwed him out of their original location. At that point, I think there was genuine animosity between them. None of this is to absolve Ray Kroc of any share of the blame, but it’s just to say that things were a little more complex than The Founder lets on.

Director John Lee Hancock described his concept of The Founder as The Social Network (2010) meets There Will Be Blood (2007), so that helps explain why the story took this route.

Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation (2009–2015) was great as obsessive-compulsive Dick McDonald, but Michael Keaton’s studied, careful portrayal of Ray Kroc carries the movie. His vocal cadence is memorable and infectious. He gets the McDonald brothers, as well as the audience, into the palm of his hand before ruthlessly crushing them. His speech, in which he lays out his vision for a McDonald’s in every American town, “the new American church,” will go down as one of the great movie monologues.

Overall, The Founder is a compelling portrayal of American business and the price of success.

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