The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, the driven yet craven man who was the first owner of McDonalds. Not the founder, the first owner. The distinction is a crucial one and the plot of the film hinges on how it became possible for Kroc to be one but my the other. While side stepping the question of whether a historically accurate description can constitute a spoiler, I don’t want to ruin the plot of the film. Suffice to say, it revolves around the relationship between the dour though respectable McDonald brothers and the aggressively upwardly mobile Kroc who eventually elbows them out. He neither invents nor builds anything. The innovations are all theirs, from the abolition of at-car service to the carnivorous choreography of the burger assembly line. Yet it is Kroc who initiates the franchising system, bringing about a McDonalds in every state while getting rich off the speedee system developed by the two brothers.
It’s in this way that The Founder is a film of the moment, a dark fable about the triumph of aggression and acquisitiveness over creativity and graft. It would have been easy to play the McDonalds brother for comic effect, reducing them to superficial anachronisms to be pushed around by the aspirational Kroc on his trajectory to being a man of the future America. But the portrayal of them is complex and multifaceted, even if it is perhaps too prone to positioning them in a way which avoids engaging with the complexities inherent in the labour relations of capitalism. Small business owners are still nonetheless business owners, even when they’re being cast in a narrative of opposition against the coming corruption that Kroc represents.
It would also have been too easy to cast them as forerunners of rationalisation, initiating a process which it took the over-weening ambition of Kroc to bring to fruition. But the reality is more complex, with their commitment to their initial project being a moral one: a commitment to rationalist choreography, the excellence that becomes possible through careful practice of a collective activity until it is as elaborately routinised as can possibly be. The reality is mundane, involving stop watches and clipboards. But they believe in what they are doing. Unlike Croc who merely sees it as a route away from his own inadequacies, an escape from the turgid rhythms of life as a traveling salesman and the possibility to win the esteem he has always craved.
It’s this representation of upwards mobility that I found really powerful. A willingness to dispense with everyone and everything on the way to the top. His job, his collaborators and his wife are all pieces of furniture to be cast off when attempting to rearrange them has grown tiresome. Slights and insults are fuel to this fire, underscoring the promise that one day he will have accumulated enough power and status to show everyone. One day no one will ever mock or deride him again. It’s a fragile self, driven by what the psychoanalyst and social theorist Ian Craib describes as fantasies of omnipotence: the inevitable disappointments of life do not give cause for reflection but rather fuels the drive towards accumulation. This self denies limits, it denies boundaries, it denies reality. All that ultimately exists is ‘I’ and woe betide those insubstantial players upon the stage of the world which happens to get in its way.