From the first frame of The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s film about the origins of McDonald’s, Michael Keaton dominates the screen. There are two kinds of actor with that level of magnetism: one seeks to disappear into the role, like Daniel Day Lewis; the other finds in every part they play a plausible version of themselves. Keaton belongs to this second, less immersive tradition, each character, however fully incarnated, a distant cousin of others in his resumé: the newsman in The Paper, for example, or the action hero attempting a comeback in Birdman. That trademark wince of disappointment, the eyebrows raised to encourage assent, something incorrigible about the eyes: we like him and feel at home, his films rewarding our sympathy by making it feel justified.
This time, however, we are suckered by that familiar pitch. When we meet Ray Kroc he is middle-aged and strictly small-time, lugging milkshake dispensers round food joints across the Midwest. No one believes in him: blinkered customers, fatuous friends, stay-at-home wife. So convincing is Keaton even we have our doubts, despite knowing what happens next. A visit to the McDonald brothers’ diner in San Bernardino is the turning point. They have perfected the concept of fast food, and Kroc talks his way into their confidence, promising to franchise the operation without sacrificing quality. The story of this relationship lies at the heart of the film. The McDonalds are true innovators but commit the cardinal sin of thinking small. Once Kroc gets investors involved the return on their dollar drives everything, with inevitable results.
This story is Death of a Salesman turned on its head. As the Willy Loman character, Kroc’s wildest fantasies really do materialise: untold wealth; personal recognition; the ear of Presidents. And the film presents this outcome without comment or irony, even tacking real footage on the end to drive the point home. What, then, is it saying? Hurrah for the American Dream of rags (or at least off-the-peg suits) to riches? Lots of other people make money, after all. Even the McDonalds get cheques. Yet his treatment of them is surely meant to leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth, like a stale bun or burnt French fry. Is that the intention, a cautionary tale about the downside of success? But somehow the critique seems wider and more compelling. The homespun values of the original McDonald’s are trampled on by corporate ruthlessness and greed. And those values are central to America’s sense of itself: family, community, looking out for the little guy. The things that countries believe about themselves are usually untrue.
The Founder says it all in the title. Having taken everything else from the brothers, Kroc cannot bear to leave them with the credit for beginning it all. The victor gets to rewrite history – in this case on his business card. Nor is there is any hint of comeuppance, of pride coming before a fall. In Greek tragedy hubris is a fatal character flaw, but billionaires get to rewrite that moral as well. Perhaps this is what the film is offering, a story for our times. A golf-playing mansion-dweller, upgrading wives as if they were cars: if this man resembles anyone it is the deal-making narcissist in the White House. Such people don’t get to lose – and if they did, it would be tax deductible.