I think I was probably the only person excited to see this movie – like, an interest which goes slightly beyond the mental recognition of its existence. To others, it didn’t look like a La La Land, or a Moonlight – it was one of those awards season movies which looked solid, but probably wouldn’t pick up much buzz. Sadly, this prophecy came true.
I say sadly because I finally got around to watching The Founder on DVD, and it’s really rather good. Like I said, I was already excited for it, because it’s A) got Michael Keaton, B) is a contemporary historical film about McDonald’s, C) it looked a lot like The Social Network, which is one of my favourite films ever, and D) I adored John Lee Hancock’s prior movie – Saving Mr. Banks.
The Founder essentially acts as a bridge between those two movies. Like The Social Network, it’s a tale of power and scheming and greed, but it sheds Fincher and Sorkin’s cold, mechanical tone for the infectious sentimentality of Saving Mr. Banks – which may seem like an odd fit, but it worked wonders.
To cut a long story short, The Founder tells the story of how McDonald’s was built, and how one guy – Ray Kroc, standing above, played to seedy perfection by Keaton – effectively stole the McDonald Brothers’ first ever fast-food restaurant and turned it into the global corporation we know and love today.
Unlike The Social Network, however, the people who came up with the stolen ideas don’t get recognition or compensation. Because they could never categorically prove that Kroc breached the terms of their initial deal, they never got any royalties – royalties which, the film says, would be worth $100m a day. It’s brutal and sickening. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
What The Founder is really about, though, when you peel away the burger grease and the bright colourful lights, is a film about the American Dream. What is the American Dream? Nobody can tell you, because nobody really knows. The core of it is, supposedly, the ideal that anyone can achieve anything as long as they work hard enough. It’s textbook liberalism. Of course, America was also the nation built on the backs of slaves, who certainly could not achieve anything so long as they worked hard enough. Right there is your first pin-prick in the bubble.
But isn’t that interesting?
I’ve always been both intoxicated and fascinated by America. It is a sickening place of crass commercialism and artificiality, with racial, class, wealth and gender conflict bubbling beneath the surface, but it also has such a strangely alluring appeal. If you’ve ever been to America, you’ll know what I’m talking about. That weird sense of homeliness, and cohesion, and satisfaction. You feel it from looking out across the wide open planes, present up and down the country. When you see some kids playing in a field. Even when you go into Wal-Mart and notice all the fake cheese they sell. Or when you go into a McDonald’s. It’s awful, and bizarre, and entirely wrong – but I love it.
As do the Americans. What I’m describing shouldn’t be new to anyone – we all know about American exceptionalism, in some way or another. There has been, and still is, a sizeable chunk of evangelists who think that America is the new Israel, which should illustrate their ego succinctly.
(that is one of mine i haven’t just slapped some random vid on here)
America is interesting, however, because it’s the only nation on Earth founded on a story. A story of pure meritocracy; of pure social mobility; of family, and hard work, and religion, and spirit, and community, and individualism. I suspect the Founding Fathers enshrined America’s dedication to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the intention that those words would uplift the future citizens and inspire them to do great. Perhaps that’s all it’s meant for: a push into the world, but not a guarantee that the push will come to anything more than falling face-first into the mud.
The Founder exemplifies this in its most poignant scene, which provides some clarity on why Ray is such a prick. He’s cooped up in a hotel room, in his white vest and boxer briefs, anxious because he thinks his wife doesn’t care about the fact he’s spent another day failing to sell any milkshake machines (oh, yeah, he was a salesman). We then see him put on a vinyl to play, expecting it to be some jazzy song to lead the film into the next scene. Instead, it’s an audio recording of a self-help book. It’s called The Key to Happiness, or something stupid like that.
“Nothing’s more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Unrecognised genius is practically a cliche. The world is full of educated fools…”
…are the words which the speaker reels back to Ray, as he settles into bed, looking, well, like a loser. We can tell that this isn’t the first time he’s listened to it. Hancock even spins back to these words in the final scene, so as to emphasise their importance, as Ray practices delivering them in a mirror in his big swanky new house. He’s on his way to meet Governor Ronald Reagan, another man who ended up being fairly integral to the idea of the American Dream. Why does Hancock bring us back to the speech? Is it a sign that Ray has now elevated himself out of his ditch – that he’s no longer an unsuccessful man with talent? Or is it a sign that Ray still needs to hear those words so he can feel like he’s worth something?
The American Dream is, of course, inherently flawed. It’s impractical and impossible for every single citizen to reach the height of their dreams, and I say that as a believer in meritocracy. Inevitably, you end up with swathes of people who have failed, as America has done throughout its history.
But what happens when failure isn’t an option? What happens when the moral that inflates the national psyche, and is drilled into the skull of every citizen from the day they are born, is that they – everyone – is capable of greatness? Then, those swathes of people don’t accept failure.
“When is enough going to be enough for you, Ray?” “Never.”
…is an exchange between Ray and his wife, Ethel, played beautifully by Laura Dern. It about sums it up.
Now, I don’t think defeatism and accepting failure are necessarily good traits. I deplore them. One must only accept defeat when defeat is the best option. I am, and will always be, the optimist – the hoper of far-flung hopes, and the dreamer of improbable dreams.
I wish I wrote that myself, but Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor said it.
In the case of Ray Kroc, though, his unwillingness to accept reality didn’t render him an inspiring, hopeful figure. Instead, it propelled him to lie and cheat his way to the top so that he could feel good about himself. Not only did the American Dream make him, but he then remade the American Dream. McDonald’s has, as Ray wished, become the “new American church.” The inherent consumerism of the fast-food business has shaped society in ways he never could have dreamed of.
It’s a damning subversion of the American Dream – one which is a joy to watch.
I’ll continue to be fascinated by American exceptionalism (and intoxication), and may well write some more words on it here for nobody to read. I’ve been listening to one of Barack Obama’s books – The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream – read by the man himself, so it is, of course, gorgeous. He’s got some interesting stuff to say. After my ears plough through the next 10 chapters, I’ll report back.
If you get the chance, do watch The Founder. It’s cracking. Perhaps add a sprinkle of Saving Mr. Banks, and a dash of The Social Network too. I reckon they’d complete it.