In 1954, Ray Kroc was an ambitious, middle-aged salesman who wanted something bigger. When he visited Mac and Dick McDonald at their restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., he knew his moment had come. He would franchise their brilliant idea: a fast and efficient, family-friendly hamburger stand.
The McDonald brothers had set ideas about how the restaurants should work; they found Ray Kroc’s rapid growth of the brand and his desire to find alternative, cost-cutting methods disconcerting. The relationship grew fractious. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc was fast becoming the face of McDonald’s, even naming the first store he himself opened as McDonald’s Number 1. He was a hero of business to many, and he worked his magic on other hard-working dreamers.
In The Founder, Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc with a dogged charm and an occasional glint of desperation. His Kroc never gives up, but his determination leaves viewers uneasy. His wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), is frustrated that they have no real home life—Ray is always gone. He shows little interest in the life she’s been trying to build in his absence, always wrapped up in his next big idea.
Director John Lee Hancock gives us a portrait of the American dream—a man with a vision, a strong work ethic, and a belief in the power of persistence. Pulling himself up by his bootstraps, Ray Kroc turned his dream into reality. In doing so, however, he did things that were legal but unsavory; he betrayed the trust of many. He undercut the McDonald brothers and ended up marrying the wife of one of his franchisees. Persistence can be a sign of character, but the dark underbelly of the film’s Kroc is a Machiavellian pursuit of his aspirations.
Keaton’s Kroc finds inspiration in whiskey and in the folksy wisdom of a record he takes on his travels called “The Power of the Positive” by Clarence Floyd Nelson. This is a rather obvious allusion to the book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, who was hitting his stride about that time. Peale, a pastor, was credited with starting the positive thinking movement. He preached Christ while also encouraging people to believe that the only limits on their achievements were the limits they placed on themselves. His message was sometimes perceived as more self-actualization than self-sacrifice.
This seems quite timely, as one of Peale’s more famous quotes has popped up recently in discussion of one of his admirers and former parishioners, U.S. President Donald Trump: “Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you are.” What could be encouragement to find the inner strength and grit to overcome obstacles can also be interpreted as the belief that each person holds sovereignty over their own lives, the way of Israel in the time of Judges, when “everyone did as they saw fit.” Kroc seems to have chosen to do things as he saw fit.
The Founder is not a documentary; it ignores Kroc’s second marriage and his daughter altogether. Even so, it offers viewers a closer look at a man who built a fast-food empire and forever changed the restaurant business. He amassed great wealth and became an iconic businessman and philanthropist, just as many people in sales and business dream of doing. Along the way he also amassed two ex-wives, practiced some questionable ethics, and left behind a number of disgruntled business partners. It often seems more nightmare than dream. Perhaps it all depends upon your attitude toward the facts. (Weinstein)