The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, who turned a modest fast-food restaurant into McDonald’s by betraying the integrity, hard work, and perseverance. It espouses the American virtues of visionary entrepreneurship and self-made success while showing how success is really won: by stealth and greed.
In the first part of the film, Kroc is a struggling salesman selling milkshake mixers in 1954. One day he stumbles across a restaurant run by two brothers, Maurice “Mac” and Richard “Dick” McDonald, where the food is ready straight away and is served in a bag. No cutlery, no plate, no waiting. The fast-food idea is the brain-child of the brothers and clearly inspired by the Fordist model of production. Kroc persuades the brothers to allow him to set up franchises. The brothers want to maintain quality standards so they demand to approve any changes.
Kroc is at first portrayed as an entrepreneur who is genuinely inspired by the brothers’ initiative and resourcefulness. He wants to help them and succeed with them. The film celebrates the McDonald brothers’ vision, industry, and constancy. They tried, failed, tried again, and again. They are the heroes who do not want to compromise their restaurant’s standards, but they also lack flexibility and want to rein in Kroc’s ambitious plans. Kroc is the champion of the self-made man who shuns business aristocracies. Kroc thinks big, loves people who are enterprising, who take risks, who want to better themselves. He employs a Jewish Bible salesman because of his work ethic to ensure standards are kept across restaurants. Then the Protestant-capitalist fairy-tale turns dark.
It begins with swapping milkshakes with powdered ones to cut the costs of refrigeration. The McDonald brothers would not have it, but Kroc follows the advice of a financial consultant, Harry Sonneborn, who tells him that he can provide land to the franchises and thus go around the brothers’ authority. The enterprising Kroc quickly becomes the greedy businessman who steals the business, the name, and the girl. Kroc separates from the McDonald brothers taking all the franchises and their surname while reneging on the promise of giving them 1% annual royalty, divorces his wife and marries the wife of a restaurant owner/investor.
Kroc wanted the name ‘McDonald’ because it spoke of America. His Polish sounding name could not be the American institution Kroc wanted McDonald’s to become. The land of opportunity requires many sacrifices. On the altar of success, the flame burns integrity and hard-work. The film sheds a light on the inherent contradictions of capitalist culture. Weber claimed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that there was an affinity between Protestant methodical work and personal self-control, and the systematic accumulation of the capitalist. The film reaffirms the virtues of industry, self-reliance, and perseverance, whilst showing that it is capitalism that betrays them. It is a subtle but scathing critique of the moral narratives used to legitimise capitalism and the reality behind the mask.