Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Empire Builder

In “The Founder’s Paradox,” a late chapter in his unusual business book Zero to One, Peter Thiel discusses the tendency of successful tycoons to contain multitudes — to “oscillate between sullen jerkiness and appealing charisma,” to be dorkish outsiders one moment and consummate insiders the next, and to be adulated one moment and scapegoated soon after.

In The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s smoothly ingratiating origin story about a little restaurant chain called McDonald’s, we get a fascinating variation on the Thielian paradox. The movie’s subject is Ray Kroc (played energetically by Michael Keaton), the man who put the golden arches in every town and strip mall and rest stop in this fair land. And Kroc is, indeed, a creature of paradox: a lifelong failure who suddenly found astonishing success, a gee-whiz salesman who turned out to be a ruthless corporate infighter, a man who sold McDonald’s as the most all-American and family-friendly of restaurants and eventually saw it become the epitome of soulless, mechanized fast food.

But the title has a wink in it, because Kroc was not actually the founder of McDonald’s. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was no single founder: Instead, Thiel’s paradox found expression not just in Kroc himself but in the relationship between the hustler and the men whose idea he borrowed, amplified, and ultimately stole.

Those men were Mac and Dick McDonald (the reliable character actor John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, the Parks and Recreation star), a pair of brothers touched by genius but lacking the ruthlessness required for billions and billions sold. We see their genius through Kroc’s eyes: He’s schlepping milkshake makers around the Midwest, listening to motivational records in his underwear in cheap motels, when he gets an order for not one but six of his milkshake churners — six, when he can’t get the hamburger joints he’s hitting up to buy just one.

The order comes from San Bernardino, Calif., and Kroc unfurls the map and decides, why not, and drives there. What he finds is a work of Fordist brilliance. In a flashback that, rather cleverly, feels like its own biopic distilled, we watch the McDonalds pursue their hamburger-stand dream, discover all the flaws involved in drive-in ordering, and finally achieve their breakthrough — the assembly line of hamburger preparation, the stripped-down menu (just burgers and fries and milkshakes), the meal in a paper wrapper, and “Welcome to McDonald’s!”

Except that people don’t understand it: The burger-flippers make a hash of the process and have to be coached like the team in Hoosiers, the crowds come on opening night expecting a drive-in or a sit-down restaurant, and then the bright lights bring a plague of bugs, and our heroes think all is lost, they’re about to close the restaurant . . . and then a boy shows up and orders a burger and fries. And then another one shows up, and another, and another, and in this little movie-within-the-movie there is exultation, apotheosis, the American dream imagined and then grasped.

But what the brothers have grasped is a thriving business in a single mid-size city in southern California. It takes our man Kroc, heretofore a midlife Willy Loman who gets mocked at the local country club his dignified wife (Laura Dern) insists they join, to grab the idea and take it national — inking a franchising deal with the control-freak brothers in which they retain absolute control over the design of every single restaurant, mortgaging himself to the hilt to put golden arches up outside Chicago, and then fighting a two-front war to simultaneously expand the brothers’ restaurant empire and persuade them to give him the flexibility he needs to make everybody (but mostly himself) rich.

By the end of the story, it’s his restaurant empire, thanks to the brothers’ naïveté and some complicated corporate maneuvering, in which a clever lawyer, Harry J. Sonneborn (B. J. Novak), plays a crucial role. Which makes Kroc a sort of villain, or at least an antihero, a transformation underlined by the fact that he essentially steals his second wife (Linda Cardellini) as well, taking her from one of the go-getters who signs up to run one of his very first franchises.

But the argument in The Founder, its contribution to the literature on foundings, is that a little villainy is a requirement if you’re establishing an empire — and that when you start out with men of genius who lack that killer instinct, a great imperial success like McDonald’s requires something like the strange, ultimately unhappy dynamic between Kroc and the brothers McD. They are one part Wozniak to his Jobs, one part Remus to his Romulus: There would have been no golden arches without them, but their idealism had to give way to his persistence for the empire to be born.

If this sounds a little glib, a little like a salesman’s self-justifying pitch — well, spend two hours in the dark with Keaton’s Kroc. See if he sells you on it.

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