The Founder (2016) directed by John Lee Hancock, starring Micheal Keaton, Laura Dern reviewed by Dave Kellaway
“You know what – contracts are like hearts, they are made to be broken.” So says Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton in The Founder. The Guardian/Observer found it a bland bio-opic but it can also be read as an expose of the nature of post war capitalism.
Capitalism in its quest for profit and expansion takes over more and more of our lives so providing meals began to be taken out of the home and becomes part of the capitalist market. Women, after being encouraged to go back to the family home directly after the war were also through the 1950s beginning to work more outside the home. The growth of fast food restaurants also partially responded to this process – even some advertising focussed on the idea of busy women being able to feed their families through McDonalds.
The film shows how Kroc deliberately shifted the tone of his restaurants away from young teenagers towards families. The Post-War boom where wages and profits were rising at the same time allowed this expansion to take place. The film recreates the sights and sounds of this economic growth really well.
Supporters of capitalism say this is the best way that talent and resources can be exploited as the system rewards talent and innovation. The story of Ray Kroc, who builds the McDonalds empire, shows that dogged persistence in taking a competitive advantage by fully exploiting capitalist social relations is fundamental. Economic progress is not simply about technological change (what Marx calls the productive forces) but about developing the relations of production – using property relations, limited liability and finance to create the greatest possible profit.
The original McDonalds were the geniuses behind a fordist reorganisation of the fast food restaurant so you could get your ‘quality’ burger within a few minutes. There is great scene where the two brothers use chalk and their staff on a tennis court to map out different configurations of their kitchen and serving area to achieve the best one. But they did not understand how to make it more than locally profitable. Ray Krok did and he became the creator of the McDonalds corporation
Once there is expansion onto a national level, there is a tendency to increase profitability by cutting back continually on costs; so Kroc replaces real milk with powder in his milk shakes. The film does not really deal with the whole nutritional or ecological implications of the McDonalds operation but it does counterpose the brothers’ defence of quality against Kroc’s obsession with the bottom line. McDonalds went to great length years later to sue activists who challenged the nutritional quality or ecological impact of their products as well as the conditions of workers in the chain (see more about the McLibel case here. )
Those capitalist companies that become most successful create ‘brands’ and the most successful manage to infuse their product and operation with meanings and significance that are not necessarily materially related to it. Hence Kroc’s understanding that the golden arches could become a key symbol representing family and traditional small town American values – like the American flag at the courthouse and the cross over the church. He was keen to steal the name from the McDonald brothers because he understood that it sounded friendly and American. The film shows how the first TV advertising for McDonalds focuses on those values.
Capitalism, particularly when it stops being a local family business, does not have ethical values of trust and cooperation. It is all about competition, power and deal making. So Kroc steals the McDonalds’ ideas on kitchen organisation and quality and then cynically breaks the contract he had signed with them. His handshake to agree a 1% cut of future earnings is just that, a handshake that is not honoured. Kroc even goes so far as to take away the original owners’ right to use the name and to drive them out of their original San Bernadino store by opening a new one opposite. As Kroc says in business you have to be tough, if you see a drowning man you put the hose in his mouth.
Finally capitalism is rarely transparent, its exploitation and internal financing is shrouded in an ideology of individual contract equality and the natural common sense of supply and demands. It hides the real source of its profitability. The secret to Kroc’s success was understanding that the franchising operation had to be underpinned with his ownership of the land on which the restaurants were built. Those assets could be exponentially used to expand his empire. Like Trump Kroc was a property billionaire as much as a food industry entrepreneur
Of course anybody – such as a Trump supporter – could see the film as a fairly straightforward paean to the great American dream. The washed up milk shake fountain salesmen finally making it after so many of his projects went belly up. It is unclear how far the director means it to be very critical. But the film in Michael Keaton’s excellent interpretation takes you close up to Kroc’s meanness and contempt for his wife and the original McDonalds brothers. We see him in the final scene with his traded-in new blonde wife (shades of Trump here too) prepared to speak on a platform with Ronald Reagan.
Certainly a film for the Trump era, whichever way you read it.