The Founder (2017)

Viewed January 20th

Ray Kroc steals the idea of modern fast food from its inventors, selling himself as the founder of the company that became McDonalds. 

Well, there is no better movie to have watched today, the day in which Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. The Founder, a title which calls to mind the ever popular phrase "the founding fathers," is about the lies at the heart of American capitalism that get repeated enough and with enough force that they become the truth. The beginning of the film introduces its brand of "good capitalism" in which the brilliant McDonald Brothers establish, first, the automated processes and food delivery techniques that have since gone on to produce the fast food industry and, second, the vision of the golden arches and that word "McDonald's" spread across an all-American burger stand. The McDonald Brothers are tinkerers and honorable men who want nothing more than to give good families a fast, honest meal. Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton so that, somehow, he disappears and allows you to watch Ray Kroc up there) is the film's version of "bad capitalism" or at least "inevitable capitalism." He's not an evil man per se, but, in a culture that celebrates the logic of capitalism at all costs, he sees the McDonalds restaurant not as something to hone but as something to sell and expand. And sell and expand he does until he's so thoroughly sold out the original vision of the restaurant that what McDonalds is as a business has been transformed from a series of restaurants to a real estate service in which franchises are required to lease land owned by the McDonald's Corporation in order to take part in the golden arches myth. Along the way, Kroc begins selling himself, not the original McDonalds Brothers, as The Founder of McDonald's, stealing their genius (along with their company, even their name) for himself and threatening the poor brothers with a blizzard of lawsuits if they dare question this great lie. Ultimately, they submit and Kroc has become the owner of the business's history. 

The script was written by Robert Siegel, who, with his The Wrestler and Big Fan, has developed a project of capturing complicated American male types. The Founder resonates with other recent real life capitalism explainers such as Aaron Sorkin's tech industry films Steve Jobs and The Social Network & Adam McKay's subprime mortgage crisis film The Big Short. Unlike those other films, though, The Founder is not particularly ambitious in terms of its purely cinematic qualities. The director John Lee Hancock (best known himself as a writer) pushes crisp, bright, McDonald's-esque colors but otherwise lets Siegel's script take the lead. The result is that, as a film, the pleasure is in its McDonald's-esque efficiency: it takes what could be a severely confusing or just boring subject and makes it clear and entertaining enough and gives the audience writerly moments that feel like good prestige television in the best way. An example is a wonderful final gesture (echoing Melania Trump's ripping off Michelle Obama's convention speech) in which Kroc's big, career-capping speech to the then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan is purported to be authored by Kroc about the little bits of wisdom he's learned along the way but is actually a rip-off of a self-help recording he used to listen to while he was a struggling milk shake mixer salesman. In the end, The Founder is not a cinematic triumph, but a solid presentation of how Ray Kroc was himself not a genius or particularly talented but, encouraged by an American national ethos best embodied by Donald Trump, lied, lied, and lied again about who he is and where he came from and then trampled anyone who dared say otherwise until the lies became the truth. But as I said there is no better film to have watched today, not just because it captures how Donald Trump got to where he is, but because here I am several decades later and the telling of this history by more honest people is outing the lies of Ray Kroc and that outing, because it's a well-produced Hollywood movie starring Michael Keaton, will be what's accessible for future generations interested in the topic. Someday history will out Donald Trump, too.