Reviews: Books & Film
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The Founder, 2016 (film)

Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc. I’m lovin’ it.

The Founder is the true story of Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. “Founder”? Hold up.

In actual fact, it was the McDonald brothers who actually created the concept and opened the first restaurants, not Kroc, right? Yep, and you can bet yer burger on it, brother.

In the film, the McDonald brothers are protrayed as a couple of quirky Southern California businessmen who are as inventive as they are principled. The brothers are appalled, for example, at even the mere suggestion that McDonald’s restaurants would sell milk shakes made from powder.

It’s not a milk shake if it doesn’t have milk! This is a matter of principle for the brothers. For Ray Kroc, however, principles are beside the point.

“If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and I’d put a hose in his mouth” ~ Ray Kroc

The milk shake dilemma perfectly illustrates the difference between Kroc and the McDonald brothers. The brothers stick to their principles, while Kroc becomes more and more obsessed with profit and with building a fast food empire.

In the end, Kroc wins. Clutching his phone and with eyes flashing, Kroc says this to one of the brothers:

“Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and I’d put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?”

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Michael Keaton is brilliant as Ray Kroc

 

It’s a classic tale of gaining the world and losing one’s soul. Increasingly lost in himself, Ray begins to lose touch with reality itself. He comes to refer to himself as “The Founder.” At first this seems like absolute self-indulgent bullshit, but then you stop and think that maybe Kroc is right, in a weird way, because the McDonald’s that he’s creating isn’t quite the same thing that the McDonald brothers had in mind. It’s a franchise, it’s an empire.

It takes a guy like Kroc, though, to build an empire, at least in our capitalist world. Within capitalism, business is war, it really is “rat eat rat,” and if you’ve got the killer instinct, you’ll go far.

Is this why we love capitalism?

But Kroc wasn’t always a “rat eat rat” sort of guy, though. At first, Kroc is just another struggling salesman. Then he sees the Golden Arches and he’s enchanted, mesmerized, and it sets him on his great quest, he embarks on his pursuit of happiness, his piece of the American Dream. All of this is glamorized in first half of the film, and it’s enough to make even the most hardened capitalist reach for a kleenex to dab the corners of his eyes.

But then the film shifts and Kroc embraces the Dark Side. To build an empire, Kroc has to compromise and take short cuts. He begins to pursue success by any means possible, his ego swells up to the size of the Golden Arches themselves, and Kroc ends up heartlessly ditching the wife who supported him when he was just a beat down salesman.

This seems to be where the film ends, but then it softens the blow by flashing folksy clips of Ray Kroc himself, together with his second wife. Then we see that Ray Kroc donated a good chunk of his fortune to charity — and oh yes, McDonald’s is back to serving milk shakes made with real ice cream.

Aw shucks and gee whiz, Wally. Maybe that Ray Kroc guy is a swell fellow after all.

Americans love the stimulation: the risk, the thrill of it all

The story of Ray Kroc is a drama, and capitalism is the catalyst. As a critic of capitalism, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is this why we love capitalism? Do we love it for the drama?

There’s something of a Greek trajedy in the life of Ray Kroc — you flew too high, Icarus! — and this is true in all the lives of all so-called “great men” in the history of capitalist America: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, even the geeky Bill Gates.

I think we really dig it. Something in our collective American consciousness is in love with the drama capitalism, even though it’s an economic system that (by its very nature) disproportionately benefits the few and impoverishes many.

We may not approve of making money an idol — America was colonized by Puritans for god’s sake — but capitalism remains sacred, especially in recent decades. Even now, as socialism is on the rise, and with many capitalist-sympthizing economists themselves recognizing the flaws in capitalism, still the public at large is reluctant to consider other options.

Even many liberals balked at Bernie Sanders because of his “democratic socialism.” And when it came time to prosecute the banksters who crashed the economy, along with the other lords of finance, a liberal Democrat Presidnt bailed them out — and only a rag tag group of Occupy misfits voiced a substantial objection.

 

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Ray Kroc was mesmerized by McDonald’s because he felt there was something very “American” about the Golden Arches and something very American embedded in the name “McDonald’s”

It’s not just the system, Dick. It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. That’s compared to Kroc. What a crock. What a load of crock. Would you eat at a place named “Kroc’s?” Kroc’s has that blunt, Slavic sound. Kroc’s. But McDonald’s, oh boy. That’s a beauty. A guy named McDonald? He’s never gonna get pushed around in life.

I think we are enchanted by the drama. Capitalism gives us big stories of glory, or “great men” who are also flawed. The best and worst of our nature is on display. And the system itself delivers booms and busts, soaring prosperity and Great Depressions. It yields up much suffering, but it’s the stuff of great drama.

Consider: Capitalism is an unstable system that shifts workers around, destabilizing families and destroying communities. Yet even American Christian religious leaders (who declare that the family is a god-ordained institution) will defend capitalism to the death, like it’s Gospel truth.

I think Americans just love the risk, the thrill of it all, and the stories of people like Ray Kroc. Only in American capitalism can you make something of yourself, we are told, if you work hard enough, or so we are told. But it’s more than that — it’s the whole big picture — in America you can be born into poverty, work hard and succeed, sell your soul to the devil, live fast and loose, and all of this sets the stage for the grand finale, the moment of reckoning:

Will you come back to yourself? Will you repent and be redeemed? Or will you topple under your own weight and crash and burn?

Either way, it’s the kind of big tent revival drama that seems to be in our genes.

It’s all damn good entertainment. Icarus, you’ve got nothin’ on capitalism, bro.

This entry was posted in: Reviews: Books & Film

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Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy; I pass the winters in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm working on a memoir-based nonfiction book on the American Dream. I blog, quite frequently, and I also have a novel in process, set in Alaska.

10 Comments

  1. Recently I mentioned that my home town is where Harrison Ford grew up. It’s also the home town of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s franchise — Des Plaines, Illinois. I loved going there as a kid, though I’ve always been a bigger fan of the fries than of the shakes. No seating package — you had to eat in your car or take it home.

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  2. One more: John Wayne Gacy’s last victim was a student at Maine West. The kid was working part time at a pharmacy in Des Plaines; his mother came to pick him up to take him home; he told her he was stepping outside for a minute to talk to a guy about a summer job; he never came back. The pharmacist IDed the guy he went to talk to as John Gacy, who lived in the next town over and who did lots of construction work in Des Plaines. And so it was the Des Plaines detective who nabbed Gacy.

    Des Plaines’s motto: City of Destiny.

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  3. Circling back around… Our family was friends with the long-term Des Plaines police chief, who told Anne and me a bit about the Gacy investigation when we stopped in to see him and his wife in Prescott AZ where they’d retired. He had been a beat cop when Kroc’s first shop opened up: Kroc made sure that the police always got free eats when they stopped in. And now that I’m in that Des Plaines zone, I’m ready to watch The Founder — we’ll crank it up tonight.

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  4. Pingback: Einstein was a socialist #2 – Yoda, Ray Kroc, and the problem of oligarchy – life being what it is

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