This past weekend was an opportunity to see The Founder with Michael Keaton. This is the story of Ray Kroc, and his relationship with McDonalds. It is a business story, based roughly on the truth, and tells the story of Kroc who was a salesman for various products in his early days, as he drove the country peddling his wares. In the last instance it was multi-cup milkshake machines. He was pressed to sell one (maybe) in an area and then got a phone order for 6 machines from a small restaurant in San Bernadino CA. This was 1954, and burgers were sold mostly at drive-ins that were all the rage with the teenage set, as shown in Happy Days and American Graffiti. Kroc sees first hand in his travels some of the challenges with Drive Ins; the lines, the wait, the wrong orders, plenty of staff and lots of dishes to be bought, cleaned, stolen and broken. Then he meets the small restaurant in California run by two brothers (Dick and Mac McDonald). He buys them dinner and they tell him in detail their story, and quite a story it is. The ingenious part being an ergonomic assessment of the burger-making process and a commitment to focus on what one does well in business. The brothers had tried and failed at couple ideas from Kroc, but he sees franchising this restaurant as his road to business glory. Kroc is a driven individual, a workaholic with little regard for his home life, and his Wife Ethal (the ever-aging Laura Dern) who has so very little to do in this film. The rest becomes the story about these people. It is interesting on a few levels, one of which is the ability of the central character to make his own story. Kroc strikes a bargain with the McDonalds boys to franchise others, but gets very little in the bargain. He focuses on Illinois where he is from, and even has the audacity to call one of the locations there “McDonalds Number 1”. The writing on the wall is clear pretty early on to all of us who know how this ends except for the trusting and kind brothers. Mac in particular ignores the signs from Kroc. Kroc too shows that he believes that “contracts, like hearts, are made to be broken”. Early on he plays his own legal counsel in reviewing a contract, but later gets more professional help. Kroc is an End justifies the Means kind of guy. He has persistence and drive. He is unfailingly a man without a conscience or remorse. He took what was a small restaurant in rural California and it’s process and made a global sensation worth billions.
Is it compelling? Is it worth seeing? I found it slow at times, but the acting is solid from Keaton and the McDonalds brothers. Dick really is the genius behind it all. There are some interesting moments, but here is another tale of a corporate giant who acts dubiously either professionally or personally (Steve Jobs is another one. Mark Zuckerberg yet another). It is interesting however that Kroc seemingly however much he preaches it isn’t a man of his word. And that you would think is fatal – but then again, these are times where increasingly we see that dishonesty and playing with the facts, can take you to great heights. Here is a movie that shows one man and how much that can be true. Salesmen are salesmen….