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The Founder


Published January 18, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 18, 2017 at 5:12 p.m.

Ask anyone who started McDonald's, and you'll get the same answer: Ray Kroc. Ask anyone who started Apple, and you'll hear it was Steve Jobs. In the case of the latter, we should know better. As several movies have made clear, Steve Wozniak dreamed up the company's first computer and created it with his own two hands. But Jobs excelled at promotional razzle-dazzle and eclipsed him.

Now, courtesy of director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) and writer Robert D. Siegel (Big Fan), a film reveals the man behind the curtain at McDonald's, and his name isn't Ray. It's Dick. It's also Mac. I can't remember the last time I saw a film on a subject this familiar filled with so many startling historical facts.

Which is another way of saying The Founder tells one hell of a more or less true story. Liberties have been taken, though none were needed. Seriously, the company's saga of global domination hardly requires embellishment.

When we meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), he's in his fifties and schlepping multi-spindle milkshake mixers from drive-in to drive-in across the heartland. At an age when many men would be considering retirement, he spends days having doors slammed in his face and nights in seedy motels drinking whiskey. There he listens to a motivational LP and repeats mantras like, "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence."

One day Kroc checks in with his home office and gets the message that will change his life. Some hamburger joint in San Bernardino has ordered six machines. What kind of a restaurant, he wonders, is so busy it needs six? A revolutionary kind, he discovers, after he drops everything and drives to California to check it out.

There he meets Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald, the delightfully oddball brothers behind the bustling one-of-a-kind enterprise. Kroc can't believe his eyes. He walks up to a window and places an order, and his food is in front of him before he can pull out his wallet. His first McMeal is a religious experience in a paper sack. Before Kroc knows it, Dick and Mac have shown him around and shared their secret: a food-prep assembly line that's equal parts Henry Ford and George Balanchine.

This is the film's revelation — that Kroc wasn't the "founder" of McDonald's, as he maintained until his death in 1984. Rather, he found McDonald's and, through persistence and coldhearted calculation, weaseled his way into business with the brothers, franchised that business "from sea to shining sea," and then stabbed them in the back.

In reality, that's not quite how it went down. The film has Ray flimflamming the McDonalds into aggressive expansion, when the record shows that was their plan all along. They recruited Kroc to pursue precisely that goal.

There's more, but why quibble, when Hancock manages to make Kroc's machinations so mesmerizing? Even when those machinations hinge on the white-knuckle excitement of real estate law. What's truly weird is the extent to which Keaton gets the viewer behind him. His Kroc is such a charismatic Energizer Bunny that you root for the dude despite yourself.

It's not as though Dick and Mac aren't sympathetic figures. Not only are they legitimate visionaries, they're decent, likable guys. Then there's Ethel (Laura Dern), the wife Kroc initially takes for granted and ultimately leaves behind. By any definition, he's a supersized slimeball, yet you almost have to admire his relentlessness.

Fast talk. Fast food. A fast buck. How serendipitous a picture is The Founder for the era of President Donald Trump? Consider this: Both make their debut on January 20.

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