Ray Kroc’s story is one which I knew the details of thanks to my years working for the chain of restaurants that he is the ‘founder’ of. Each year we learnt about him through Founder’s Day, and we were supposed to celebrate him as such. But the story isn’t one of a nice guy who built and empire. No, Ray Kroc was a manipulator and schemer who built his empire on the backs of those who really founded it. Even knowing the story, however, I was captivated by this film adaptation of the man.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was selling milkshake machines to burger restaurants when he came across a store named McDonald’s, run by the brothers Mac and Dick McDonald. Their method of producing burgers impressed Kroc, with their method allowing for fast production, speedy service, and less errors, and so he approached them with aims to expand their chain to a franchise. The brothers reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that they retained the final say on all creative decisions going forward. As the empire grew, with Kroc finding investor after investor, Ray saw many opportunities to build on the empire further, but began being frustrated by the reluctance of the brothers to change anything. So began a power struggle which would eventually lead to a worldwide operation.
The thing about many biopics is that they tend to skew in one favour or the other. Either portraying the main focus as a hero, or painting them completely in darker shades. The Founder smartly avoids this approach, and paints Kroc as a determined, sometimes sympathetic individual who just wants to succeed in life. The early parts of the story work to make us care for him, and his initial encounters with the McDonald brothers shows a side of the man that was considerate and very human. So, when his more dubious antics toward the latter half of the film come into play you see them less as him being inherently nasty, but more a result of his ambition. Indeed, as he gains more power, he proves the decree that absolute power corrupts. Yet even in those latter moments, there are still glimmers of the gentle, soft spoken Kroc that we were introduced to at the start of the film. The film avoids casting judgement on whether Kroc deliberately undermined the McDonald brothers, or whether their own lack of ambition was their downfall. Instead, it tells the story as it is, and leaves it for the audience to make its choice. Then again, what else would you expect from Robert D Siegel, the writer of films such as The Wrestler?
Importantly the casting for such a biopic had to be right, and Michael Keaton is excellently cast in the lead role. A magnetic performance that grabs your attention and refuses to let go, Keaton gives it his all. Ably supported by a strong cast which includes Laura Dern as his long suffering wife, Ethel, B.J.Novak as Harry Sonneborn, and the excellent pairing of John Carroll and Nick Offerman as Mac and Dick. Direction from Hancock, who has proven his mettle on biographical films with Saving Mr Banks, The Blind Side and The Rookie, is perfectly composed, never feeling exploitative or manipulative.
The Founder is an intriguing insight into the man who moulded a corporate image, which may surprise a few people, and is a far better film than you would expect the subject matter to have delivered.