Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dog Eat Dog: A Nomadic Film Review of "The Founder"

by Nomad

Sometimes it is nice to be outsmarted- at least, in the theater.
In real life, it's not so much fun.

Outsmarted is how I felt after watching the film "The Founder." Initially, the 2016 film appeared to be a 2-hour long advertisement (in story form) for the fast-food giant, McDonald's. I presumed it was a kind of publicity campaign to counter the highly critical "Super Size Me."

However, director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert Siegel cleverly managed to work on the cynicism of the audiences. It is neither an endorsement nor a critique of the present-day corporation.
"The Founder" is actually an exploration of American's business ethos: what is the true characteristic spirit of our national business culture? And how did it change in the 1950s and into the 60s and 70s?

On one side, the wholesome side is the belief that hard work coupled with a good idea is the path to business success. This is an idea that is constantly pounded into the heads of budding entrepreneurs.

Devise an extremely intelligent design, a streamlined process, or a product that everybody wants (or can be made to like), add a pinch of quasi-religious idealism, and you- yes, I mean, you- can get rich in this marvelous land of opportunity.
That's all it takes, we have long been told.

But, as the film suggests, there is another side- the ugly side- to that. In these tranquil waters that so many naive entrepreneurs wade, there is an assortment of beasties and dangers just beneath the waters. These are creatures that are always on the prowl, always hungry for other people's great ideas and hard work.

According to that, the "founder" of McDonald's, Ray Kroc, could be an ironic shortening of the word "crocodile."

Instead of a panegyric to the creator of the Big Mac, the film is actually the story how the company came to be and it is not a particularly flattering portrait.
Raymond Albert "Ray" Kroc, played very convincingly by Michael Keaton, is introduced in the opening monolog, addressing the audience outlining his sales approach. It is neither original nor impressive. And that about sums up Kroc life at that time.

Back in the early 1950s, Kroc was a middle-aged traveling salesman, peddling milkshake mixers to people who aren't very interested.

For the average Joe, Kroc's life is comfortable, middle-class and decidedly average. That's the problem. Kroc didn't consider himself to be average. Yet, at fifty-two, Kroc had passed the age when men's dreams come true.
His attractive and unhappy wife, played by Laura Durn, has heard all of his get-rich schemes in the past and has exhausted every ounce of pretend enthusiasm. His country-club friends cruelly mock him to his face.

Kroc, a man of thwarted ambitions, is a dissatisfied human being. It is the usual fare for a success story and Keaton easily wins the cinema audiences' sympathy.

One day, he stumbles across two brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, in San Bernardino, California.

In the late 1940s, the pair hit upon a novel idea. Instead of fine dining and long waits, why not speed things up?  And so the concept of fast-food was born: a marriage of the all-American meal with production line processes.
With a foolish kind of trust, they give Kroc the deluxe tour of how things are done. It was a catastrophic miscalculation and a misjudgment of character.

Unlike the brothers, Kroc has seen the future and he wants a part of it.  He sees the practically unlimited potential to their concept. Kroc's vision was not one dinky restaurant, but thousands all across America.
Thus the concept of the franchise was coupled with the fast-food process. Others, far more clever than Kroc, worked out the details of how to amass the fortunes.
Too late, the brothers realize their mistake.
"There's a wolf in the hen house. we let him in!"
In truth, Kroc is not simply a thief of the ideas of others. To his credit, he was willing to refine and improve and, more importantly, to take the bold risks. In his practical mind, one must be willing to accept compromises and sacrifice conventional wisdom for the sake of innovation.

It is no mistake that the final battle between Kroc and the McDonald brothers comes when they refuse to accept Kroc's plan to sell milkshakes that contain no milk.
What next, they ask, putting sawdust in our hamburgers?

That, by the way, is a clever jab, an inside joke.
In 2014, journalist Devin Cohen alleged that Burger King, McDonald’s and other fast-food companies were indeed adding wood pulp as a cost effective filler to its "buns, cheeses, sauces, cakes, shakes, rolls, fries, onion rings, smoothies, meats—basically everything."
In fact, McDonald’s ranked highest on the list with cellulose integrated into 14 of their menu items.

If Kroc, according to the script, might not be a truly villainous character, he is also not a particularly honest type. That presents us with a critical question: did Kroc intentionally meant to steal from the McDonald brothers?

Certainly, when he stepped into the McDonald's for the first time, he represented himself as a friend and prospective business partner. But you will have to make up your own mind whether he had an agenda.
Almost from the outset, Kroc felt hamstrung by the restrictions the brothers set out in their working contract with Kroc. It was only a matter of time before their two business philosophies would come to loggerheads.

Like all successful businessmen short of scruples, Kroc merely saw anybody who says "no" as an obstacle to his plan and therefore must be defeated. As Keaton says in the film:
Business is war. It's dog eat dog. Rat eat rat. I want to take the future. I want to win."
If winning is the only goal, then principles are flexible and sometimes expendable. What is important is the bottom-line and that means empire-building.
His cutthroat nature becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses. Eventually, he becomes all but unrecognizable, even to himself.

The title of the film gives us a major clue to what this film is actually about. Even though he passes around business cards that boldly (and illegitimately) claim that he is the founder of McDonald's, it is a lie. It is a special kind of lie. It is a pernicious kind of self-deception.

Worst of all, it is a lie that he must constantly repeat again and again in an effort to make it true. Even when people on the inside know it is an imaginary history and when the people on the outside no longer give a damn.