Michael Keaton, The Founder, And How McDonald’s Has Impacted The American Dream

Laura Piety


Image: Michael Keaton in The Founder

Have you heard of a man named Ray Kroc? The father of a multi-billion dollar international corporation that has birthed fast food nation(s), ‘supersizing’ and a multitude of health scandals. No?

Well, fair enough. Unknown to many, Kroc is the founder – or so he eagerly claims – of McDonald’s, and the Weinstein film of the same name follows the true story of his journey from failing milkshake machine salesman to the guy helming a franchise gold mine. The core tension is drawn from the fact that Kroc swipes the fast food concept from two brothers, the real McDonalds, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, who had set up shop in San Bernardino, California, and whose business rapidly excelled thanks to a unique kitchen system reminiscent of a highly efficient Ford factory line.

Played by Michael Keaton, Kroc’s character is constructed of multiple shades of grey. It’s clear that the Director, John Lee Hancock, was careful to create a sense of ambivalence around him throughout the film. In the first act we root for Kroc – a down on his luck middling salesman and wannabe entrepreneur who seems to be the only one who carries the vision for what McDonald’s could be when he discovers the original restaurant. However, as we follow the story Kroc becomes increasingly rabid for success, opening franchise after franchise and hastily refining the business model, much to the original McDonald brothers’ displeasure. His vision seems to work, as does his strategy, which includes turning McD’s into a real estate business (it becomes clear he must own the land each restaurant sits on to maximize profits) as well as switching out real ice cream for the powdered kind and employing other dubious cost cutting efficiencies. It’s this ‘success at all costs’ mentality that quickly turns Kroc into the anti-hero, as he pulls both the rug, and the company, from under the brothers’ feet. Keaton walks this ambiguity brilliantly through the movie, acting as a suitable cipher for the American dream – the vision, hope, and opportunity of what could be, undercut by a vicious narcissism that requires running your neighbor/competition down in order to grasp the potential in front of you.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Founder is the timing of its release, evoking all kinds of questions about the nature of the American Dream and its evolution from the original white picket fence set up, to today’s ‘get rich and famous quick’ mentality. Add to this the current demonization of McDonald’s and the larger world of fast food as a trigger for the obesity epidemic and childhood health crises; and question marks about the capitalist system more generally, and you’ve got a movie that speaks more about contemporary culture than the post-war period when the company was founded.