Super-sized ideas! Super-sized dreams! Ray Kroc was the epitome of both. Always a hard-working man of vision, nothing topped his greatest vision when he met with brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California for the purpose of verifying an order for milkshake machines. Kroc didn’t just make the sale, he laid the groundwork for achieving the quintessential American Dream by way of hamburgers, french fries (400 degrees until slightly golden), pickles, milkshakes and the idea of fast food and franchise. While many know Kroc for being “The Founder” of McDonald’s or the once-owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team or for the philanthropy of both himself and third wife Joan, what most don’t know is how traveling salesman Kroc went on to change the world as we know it, and make billions of burgers and dollars in the process. Business students and those old enough to remember a time of 15 cent hamburgers served in 30 seconds at a walk-up window, undoubtedly know that Kroc “founded” McDonald’s only to the extent that he convinced the McDonald brothers to enter into a franchise partnership deal with him, only to then “swindle” control of the business from them, thus creating his own self-aggrandizing history as THE FOUNDER. THE FOUNDER is that story.
Directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Robert Siegel, THE FOUNDER is the “Big Mac” story in the history of entrepreneurship. With a Rocky-esque tenacity, for Ray Kroc it wasn’t about how hard he got hit, it was about how hard he could get hit, come back and hit back. And hit back he did as Kroc was both angel and devil, hero and villain, as he franchised his way to the top. Thanks to a well-crafted script by Siegel, extensive research and exemplary craftsmanship by production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi, THE FOUNDER is a showcase for quality and excellence both behind the lens and in front, the latter thanks to stellar performances led by Michael Keaton.
What makes THE FOUNDER such a tasty treat is that Hancock, Siegel and Keaton walk that rapier line of hero and villain, finding that balance within Kroc that celebrates his business acumen and ideologies while presenting the less flavorful aspects of his climb to the top in a manner so as to allow the audience to form their own opinions of the man. Kroc is neither glorified nor vilified. Siegel keenly focuses in large part on Mac and Dick McDonald, themselves the embodiment of the American Dream, but using Kroc as our entre into the post WWII humble beginnings of McDonald’s and the brothers commitment to quality and the revolutionary concept of the “Speedy System”, still in place today and the cornerstone of the fast-food industry.
Kroc is the son of Czech immigrants. Raised in Chicago, he has worked hard his entire life. Having one “dream” after another, each fails, but Kroc never gives up hope of grabbing the brass ring as he pounds the pavements and crosses the country pedaling five-spindle Multi-Mixers for making milkshakes. It’s thanks to an order from the McDonald brothers that Kroc wends his way to San Bernardino as he can’t belief his secretary June heard the order for six mixers correctly. No one wants or needs six five-spindle Multi-Mixers. And he was right, as on meeting with the McDonalds, the order is for eight.
Taken by the steady stream of customers and the design/efficiency of the restaurant, Kroc gets a guided tour from Dick McDonald and learns the secret of their success; limited menu items (bestsellers), exacting measurements for cooking and assembly, and the “Speedy System” methods employed with machinery designed by and built for the McDonalds. In a key flashback scene, Kroc and the audience are taken back to the beginning of McDonald’s and an empty tennis court where Dick and Mac chalked out their kitchen to design the perfect kitchen for production efficiency, and had their workers go through the motions on the chalked blueprint. What sets this sequence apart from others is the cinematography of John Schwartzman who designed dazzling camera choreography within the functioning McDonald’s built for THE FOUNDER which clearly shows the delicate dance of the fast food/Speedy System concept as the McDonalds and Kroc move through the actual kitchen.
For whatever reason, the McDonalds were relaying all of their secrets to Kroc, something that had been done with others who were fascinated with the idea of franchising the McDonald’s brand and concept, including Dick’s idea for “Golden Arches.” They never thought Kroc would be the one guy to actually make it work.
Mortgaging his house without telling wife Ethel, who is already miserable from Kroc’s lengthy time from home when on the road and missing her socialite life at the country club, Kroc starts his first franchise. Bringing Ethel into the fold as a means to make the idea of franchising family-friendly, things sour with Kroc’s ever increasing grandiose ideas, somewhat excessive drinking, and eventually an eye for Joan Smith, a sultry sex-kitten wife of one of Kroc’s franchisees who just happens to have a good head for business. As Joan turns Kroc on to instant milkshake mix as a way to save money, Kroc turns off Ethel and the McDonalds, the latter who don’t believe in cost-cutting at the sacrifice of quality. Ethel naturally wants a divorce – after passing the salt at the dinner table, mind you.
It’s at this juncture that the meat and potatoes of ethics and integrity come into play as Kroc is introduced to financial advisor Harry J. Sonneborn who, in one lengthy and riveting monologue by B.J. Novak as Sonneborn, sums up the ideas of capitalism and the power of real estate. In that moment, McDonald’s goes from the fast food business into real estate, the idea being to own the land on which the restaurants sit and thus lease the land to the franchisees plus get paid the franchise percentages from the actual business. (McDonald’s is one of the biggest holders of real estate in the world today.) And with that ultimate shift comes the end of the partnership between the McDonalds and Ray Kroc as Kroc sets out to conquer the world.
Michael Keaton delivers a tour de force performance as Ray Kroc. Thanks to Daniel Orlandi’s costuming, as Kroc gets greedier, the homespun hard-working two serge suit wearing Kroc becomes flashier, more tailored. And we see that change not only in Kroc’s physical appearance, but in his demeanor as he becomes cut-throat, egotistic and in some respects, sleazy. Keaton enthralls, drawing us ever deeper into the hardening mindset of Ray Kroc while supporting players help keep the scales from tipping him into total villain. The more tension and ethical considerations rise, the more Keaton sizzles.
Some of those supporting players include Kroc’s secretary and indispensable right hand, June Martino. Played by Kate Kneeland, Martino’s loyalty (which was handsomely rewarded with position, power and money by Kroc in real life) is unwavering which helps to ground the character of Kroc, tacitly reminding the audience that there is something inherently good within him.
And while June Martino may be the angel on Ray Kroc’s shoulder, it’s Harry Sonneborn who sits on the other shoulder as the devil, driving Kroc’s greed and insensitivity. B.J. Novak is flawless as Sonneborn.
Dueling for Kroc’s affections are first wife Ethel (Kroc did have 3 wives but for script purposes, wife #2 is omitted) and ultimate third wife Joan. As Ethel, Laura Dern gives a serviceable performance, embodying the post WWII, 1950’s/60’s societal mindset in manner and appearance. On the other hand, Linda Cardellini oozes sex appeal and smarts with her take on Joan.
But it’s Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch who are the heart and soul of THE FOUNDER. As Dick and Mac McDonald, respectively, the two are so in synch, so seamless as if two parts of a whole with Dick being the unflappable business oriented half and Mac the people person. The sincerity and sensitivity that Offerman and Lynch bring to their roles is touching and your heart aches for the McDonald brothers onscreen and off as we see their American Dream crushed by Kroc when he takes their name for his now corporation. We see play out in every sense of the word, that the McDonalds were just as successful as Ray Kroc; their idea of success was just different.
As mentioned above, the technical proficiency of THE FOUNDER is outstanding thanks to the triumvirate of cinematographer John Schwartzman, production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi. All three long a part of director Hancock’s team, there is a synergy within the film’s design and execution that is a testament to these men. Schwartzman’s lensing is light, bright, with beautifully choreographed camera movements within the McDonald’s restaurants built for the film. Thanks to Corenblith, he unearthed the blueprints for the original McDonald’s and two of the restaurants were built for the film, complete with functioning kitchen and “Speedy System” in place. Orlandi likewise located a company which made the original little paper hats and uniforms worn by McDonald’s employees back in the day, thus adding yet another element of authenticity to the proceedings.
John Lee Hancock has nothing but praise for the team in bringing THE FOUNDER to life. “It’s a great team and the more you work on things, and we all have similar mindsets about things, so the more we talk about them and the more we connect, it makes a very tight schedule like this go more smoothly. And you can also ask the really important questions when you’re in production as opposed to, “We didn’t count on this wall being here. It’s gonna take two hours to move it.” Those kind of things don’t happen. Plus, they are all artists and first and foremost, they are storytellers. When you’re talking to Daniel Orlandi about a costume it’s not just “Well, this is pretty or this is period and it’s cool.” It is “This feels like it would be in her closet and I can picture her buying it.” I think that resonates with actors as well when you get that kind of support. With Michael [Corenblith], he did in terms of our physical production, the heavy lifting on this, having to build on a limited budget two different stand-alone McDonald’s that were not only sets but kitchens that we cooked in. The difficulty of that with gimbaled windows and removable glass and building permits and everything else was kind of astounding. . .We had a plan for the one golden arches to become many golden arches and we said what can we do besides a CG background. And the thing you could do was we could choose, and this is because of John Schwartzman, we would choose different axis to shoot on because it looks different from every different side. So we used many multiple axis for those things and in addition to that, changed the parking plan because all McDonald’s parking wasn’t the same. Sometimes it would be this way and sometimes it would be along the side, and just parking cars in a different configuration helped cheat the eye a little bit so you could get away with the background. But John is a storyteller as well. It’s all about character. We were constantly reminding each other what the story is, what the character wants to do and is doing, and that’s a great place to come from. But nobody’s trying to show off. Everybody’s trying to serve the story.”
Expounding on Hancock, Keaton himself is quick to voice his accolades for the technical team. “I’ve always said that what’s you learn pretty early when you start making movies. First you think that’s that person’s department, this person wants to do their thing, that’s their work. I don’t say it’s rare, it’s actually not rare. There are people who think in terms of what’s the story, what’s my job, how do I move the story along. And man, these guys are the quintessential event on that.”
Not to be overlooked is editor Robert Frazen who creates and sustains ethical tensions with rapier back and forth cuts of telephonic exchanges between the McDonalds and Kroc, as well as in some well paced montages of the burgeoning Kroc empire. Frazen keeps the ideas of morality, greed and “what price success” in our heads. Hats off to supervising sound editor Jon Johnson and his team who have created a sonic experience so nuanced as to allow the sizzle of burgers on the grill to be heard.
The final taste treat comes from Carter Burwell whose eclectic score captures the initial ebullience of Kroc, the heart of the McDonalds, the excitement and unease of franchising and the contrasting bluesy sadness of defeat and exaltation of victory.
Besides its being entertaining, THE FOUNDER serves up food for thought that lingers on the moral palate long after the kitchen closes.
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Robert Siegel
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, BJ Novak, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern