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'Founder' Serves Up A Profile Of The Man Behind McDonald's

Jan 23, 2017
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This is FRESH AIR. The new film "The Founder" stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who turned a single California burger stand called McDonald's into a multibillion-dollar worldwide franchise. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It's hard to believe there was a time McDonald's wasn't ubiquitous on the American landscape, and its assembly-line model for food service wasn't the model. For that alone, you should see the Ray Kroc biopic "The Founder," which is crisply directed by John Lee Hancock from a script by Robert Siegel - because alongside Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton, we should consider the founding father of fast-food culture.

The movie's title, I should say, is barbed. Kroc turned an ingeniously mechanized San Bernardino fast food hamburger restaurant created by Dick and Mac McDonald into a franchising gold mine - make that diamond mine. But despite his later claims, he didn't actually found the restaurant. He more or less stole it.

Michael Keaton is a sensational Kroc, who begins the film selling milkshake blenders with not much success. In a sleazy way, he's very likeable. He's devoted to the gospel of Norman Vincent Peale. He hustles like mad. And when he spiels, he evokes his manic, supernatural salesman, Beetlejuice. Kroc is so intrigued by an order from McDonald's for multiple milkshake machines that he drives thousands of miles to observe the brothers' operation. Then he has to sell them on turning their restaurant into a national chain.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FOUNDER")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) I drove through a lot of towns - a lot of small towns. And they all had two things in common. They had a courthouse, and they had a church. On top of the church, got a cross. And on top of the courthouse, they'd have a flag. Flags, crosses, crosses, flags. I'm driving around. And I just cannot stop thinking about this tremendous restaurant. Now, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, forgive me, those arches have a lot in common with those buildings. A building with a cross on top - what is that? - it's a gathering place where decent, wholesome people come together. And they share values protected by that American flag. It could be said that that beautiful building flanked by those arches signifies, more or less, the same thing. It doesn't just say, delicious hamburgers inside. They signify family. It signifies community. It's a place where Americans come together to break bread. I am telling you, McDonald's can be the new American church.

EDELSTEIN: Hallelujah, am I right? In the early scenes of "The Founder," the San Bernardino McDonald's is shot in the style of a TV ad. It's honeyed, lyrical. Children hold their burgers with reverence, savoring every bite. The choreography of workers on the fast food assembly line is, in its sunny, postwar way, a beautiful fusion of humans and machines. You could almost believe McDonald's underwrote "The Founder," until the tone of the movie darkens, and the brothers realized they've, quote, "let a fox into the henhouse."

Eventually, Kroc meets the wife of a McDonald's franchisee named Joan, played with glittering eyes by Linda Cardellini, who sells him on a powdered milkshake as a way of eliminating energy-sucking ice cream freezers. Kroc pitches the product on the phone to Dick, the master architect of the McDonald's assembly line, played by Nick Offerman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FOUNDER")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) McDonald's.

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) I just found a way to save you, me and all our owner operators literally hundreds of dollars a year in electrical costs.

OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) And what would that be?

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) Two words - powdered milkshake. I'm telling you, I came across a remarkable product called INST-A-MIX. Like I say, it's a powdered milkshake. It's a fraction of the cost of ice cream and requires no refrigeration.

OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) Ray.

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) I'm telling you, I tried it myself. It tastes just like the real thing. It's delicious. It comes in chocolate, comes in vanilla. Me, I'm a vanilla man.

OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) Ray, we have no interest in a milkshake that contains no milk. Why don't we add sawdust to the hamburgers while we're at it? Frozen french fries.

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) You don't want to save a bundle?

OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) Not like that.

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) We're talking about the same great taste - same great taste - while boosting the bottom line.

OFFERMAN: (As Dick McDonald) It's called a milk shake, Ray, real milk, now and forever.

KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) I understand.

EDELSTEIN: Offerman gives a one-note performance as the single-minded Dick McDonald. And that one note is exactly right. He's terrific. When you hear Dick tell Ray Kroc that McDonald's must never succumb to commercialism, you have to wince, especially as Michael Keaton loses his hard-selling Beetlejuice rhythm and becomes a grim predator, who says if he saw a business rival drowning, he'd put a hose in the guy's mouth.

If I'd seen "The Founder" six months ago, it might have seemed a little on the nose - another corporate variation on Budd Schulberg's '30s showbiz novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?". Now that a businessman's become president, it has a dose of realism that I found electric.

The movie's final crawl says that McDonald's has, at one time or another, employed an eighth of all American workers. It also mentions that Joan, who became Kroc's third wife, left hundreds of millions of dollars to, among other entities, NPR. I'm glad all that fast food has done some social good.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk with journalist Stephen Kinzer, a longtime foreign correspondent who now writes books about American military intervention in other countries and the unintended consequences. We'll talk about America's long-running debate about foreign intervention. And we'll get Kinzer's impressions of Donald Trump regarding foreign policy and how he's handling the press.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a song by the trio of sisters The Roches, who are known for their beautiful harmonies. Maggie Roche died of breast cancer Saturday. She was 65.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE")

THE ROCHES: (Singing) We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy. Maggie and Terre and Suzzy Roche... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.