When you think of the Golden Arches, you might think fast food, convenience, or even an icon, right? You'll almost certainly think of the restaurant for whom those golden arches have become symbolic - McDonalds, which has been dotting the global landscape for decades now.
Odds are equally good that you won't think of the almost dark way in which Ray Kroc, the man who became synonymous with the iconic restaurant, helped McDonalds become a global brand. Ray Kroc didn't found McDonalds, though #TheFounder makes it clear that he wanted to give that impression; rather, it was the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, who established the restaurant and surprisingly, had no desire to franchise the restaurant.
It also establishes what many historians have come to realize over the years: that history is often written by the winners of battles, and not by those who came second.
Ray Kroc - Not The Man He Seems
It would be too easy for us to continue believing that Ray Kroc (played by the stellar Michael Keaton) was just a nice guy looking to make a good burger and fairly homey environment into a billion-dollar industry. With his slick sales patter and warm smile, The Founder's Ray Kroc shows the McDonalds' founder as a wolf in the costume of a smiling gentleman just trying to convince the McDonald brothers to franchise their restaurant.
But beneath that slick veneer, Kroc is a man who's been struggling as a salesman and he's looking for a way to make it big. How does he do it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the expense of truth and integrity, which places The Founder smack in the middle of our own experiences in the 21st century, though McDonalds itself was founded in the middle of the 20th century.
The McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac (played with deft earnestness by Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively), are quite content to leave their little McDonalds restaurant as is, with its much-beloved milkshakes and speedy service. However, Kroc sees a gold mine in the making, and convinces the brothers to allow him to franchise the restaurant in spite of their misgivings. They want to keep their business small and easily supervised, but Kroc wants to capitalize on the brand the brothers have built, in spite of the fact that he has had no previous restaurant experience himself.
Some might argue that nine-tenths of talent is actually knowing what to do with said talent, even if that talent is not your own. That appears to be the guiding principle that Kroc is driven by, and it soon drives a wedge in his relationship with Dick and Mac McDonald. "Business is war," he tells them, and all too soon, he has sacrificed the actual ice cream-based milkshakes that the brothers were known for in favor of milkshakes made with a powder base - a move that is introduced for the sake of productivity and not principle.
Death Of A Dream
Perhaps what places a tale built in the 1950s so squarely in our own era is the crafty way in which Kroc kills the McDonald brothers' dream. He very quickly establishes other franchises of McDonalds well away from the brothers, thereby lessening their chances of interference in what his vision entails, and effectively edges the brothers out of their own small business.
The McDonald brothers figured out how to make their business one of the fastest in the Midwest, and they stuck to pure ingredients as best they could. They wanted to ensure that what the people had was quality food for a good price, and their business boomed because of it. Due to Kroc's enthusiastic persuasion at first, and later his interference, the McDonalds that they had lovingly built from the ground up ultimately had to close their doors due to bankruptcy, and the brothers had been prevented from using the McDonalds name, as McDonalds was recognized as a corporation in its own right.
Mac McDonald even ends up suffering stress related health complications that are seemingly brought about by Kroc's maneuvering, and when the brothers realize that they can't legally go up against Kroc, simply because Kroc has amassed so much money that they would end up having to declare personal bankruptcy as a result, they realize the dream is gone. They take a buyout from Kroc, who by this point has built McDonalds into a huge national brand.
How many times have smaller businesses felt extinguished by larger brands? Is there such a thing as a thriving family business - besides Walmart, which was established by the Walton family? In some respects, the 21st century feels very much like an era where dreams of personal success in business - dreams where you have built a life on your own - very quickly come crashing down due to the realities of either the political or business landscape.
A Cautionary Tale?
In some respects, The Founder may seem like a cautionary tale for the ethically challenged. Audiences can see Ray Kroc change onscreen; with every bit of success he enjoys, his clothes improve, and his morality plummets. Is this what happens when you build an empire? Or is it what happens when you claim someone else's talent as your own?
Regardless of how you might view The Founder, it is very definitely a story for this era with roots in the 1950s Midwest.
Do you think The Founder will find success this Oscar season?