Every so often, word of mouth convinces me to try something completely out of my wheelhouse. This is one of those times. Last night, I was surfing through Netflix for “something different.” I came across The Founder, an independent film starring Michael Keaton. It’s a movie I’d heard some positive feedback about at work, though admittedly not from people I’d normally talk to about movies. Still… Michael Keaton. Even if I don’t like one of his films for whatever reason (which is rare), I tend to like his work in them. Something about his manic energy. And the story behind the story of McDonald’s is a tale I’d heard about, but to see it dramatized so well… it’s unreal. This is a movie that deserves to be seen for all the right reasons.
Basically how it unfolds, Ray Croc (Keaton) is a down on his luck milkshake machine salesman. He travels from diner to diner trying to sell these machines, living out of a suitcase, eating at the same substandard drive-in diners he’s trying to sell to, and basically leading a life of disappointment. Then he gets a message that some little operation in California wants to buy six of his machines. He figures there’s some mistake, so he calls them back, and they agree. There is indeed a mistake. They might need eight of them. Not quite believing and driven by curiosity to see what’s going on, Croc travels from the Midwest to San Bernardino. What he sees there will change his life and the lives of pretty much everyone on the planet within a single generation.
Mac and Dave McDonald have found “overnight success, thirty years in the making.” Their little hamburger stand has changed customer expectations, reduced the bottom line, and delivers consistent quality food from order to delivery in thirty seconds. Croc can’t believe any of it, but he knows he’s a fan. When he’s invited to see inside to see how it’s done, he jumps on the opportunity. He invites them to dinner so he can hear their story, which is nothing short of incredible in the telling. Next thing you know, Ray’s talking franchise. The nation needs this everywhere. The world needs this. It’s a can’t lose idea! Except Mac and Dave have tried that before, and when quality suffered, they pulled the plug. Their names and their reputations are important to them. They want McDonald’s to mean something close to their hearts.
Croc wears them down and says he’ll handle the details. Deals are struck, contracts are signed. The rest, as they say, is history as the little hamburger stand that could becomes the fast food giant that feeds 1% of the global population every single day, built on an empire — not of food — but of real estate.
When watching this film, it’s truly easy to empathize with Ray, Mac, and Dave. Each is living the American Dream in his own way. For Mac and Dave, it’s all about maintaining their high standards and carving out a little niche for themselves in the process. For Ray, it’s about the persistence to follow ambition where it leads, to become a self-made man. If you see the movie as two halves, the first half is the dream of capitalism as only America could define it in the 1950s, and the second half is the dark cloud behind that silver lining that has become ubiquitous with mediocre quality, minimum wage turnaround jobs, and the destruction of the whole foods market as we know it today just due to the sheer volume demanded by the franchise’s needs. At the heart of it is a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and reposition the knife so as to cut out problems as they arise. No one physically dies, but dreams are crushed in the creation of a new reality. By the end of this, if you don’t hate Ray, odds are you’re very similar to him in some respects. Even so, it’s hard not to appreciate what he accomplished and how he did it. Nobody said you had to like it.
It’s very difficult to argue with the idea that “the golden arches” has come to be something of a sign of civilization in American cities coast to coast. It’s also difficult to argue with how that influence has created a kind of cookie cutter franchise economy across the nation. Every city looks like every other city now because seemingly every business models themselves on the system McDonald’s put into play. It’s an inhuman business model. But this is a very human movie that pulls in its audience with subtlety and personality. The pacing is slow but even, and the performances are so top notch that you find yourself living vicarious in that world for the duration of the film. I was duly impressed all around by The Founder.