Welcome back to another Faith in Film blog post! Today, we're going to examine The Founder, the excellent biopic about McDonald's tycoon Ray Kroc starring Michael Keaton. Coincidentally, this film came out in 2016, the same year as Wednesday's movie, Arrival! Guess it was a good year for cinema. Don't worry; we'll include movies from other years as well!
As the film begins, we're introduced to traveling salesman Ray Kroc. He's a bit pushy, as uninvited salespeople can be from time to time, but he's not a bad guy. He and his wife live in a nice, cozy home in Illinois, but he spends a lot of time on the road. It's clear he's not happy with his life and wants something more. Keaton's performance is top-notch here; he really nails that gleam in the eye that sells Kroc's ambition.
It's clear that Ray has sold a number of different products over the years, and his wife intimates that he's been sure each one would be the "next big thing." When we meet him, it's milkshake mixers. We see a montage of him unsuccessfully pitching them to the owners of various drive-ins and gas stations.
Things change for Kroc when a random California hamburger stand orders six of the mixers. He assumes it's a mistake and calls to check in on the order. The man on the other end of the phone says, "You're right, six won't cut it; better make it eight," and hangs up, leaving Kroc holding a payphone with an astonished look on his face.
Being the ambitious guy that he is, he decides to drive all the way out to California to see the place for himself. If you haven't guessed, the name of that burger stand was McDonald's. It was run by Dick and Mac McDonald (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively) using Dick's "Speedee System," a revolutionary new way of cooking burgers that resulted in customers being served their orders in under 30 seconds.
Ray sees this for the brilliant idea that it is and convinces the brothers to make him their business partner to help build more McDonald's restaurants. This is where Ray Kroc begins to change. The business becomes successful...very successful, in fact. More restaurants are opened, profits begin to pour in, and his ambition is kicked up a notch.
We see a number of phone calls between Ray and the McDonald brothers where he encourages them to cut corners to save profits - stuff like using powdered milkshake mixes to save on freezer costs. The McDonald brothers constantly resist Kroc, and the terms of their contract make it so that he can't make any changes without their say-so. Tension begins to grow between the partners.
This is where Ray Kroc has his stroke of genius (with a bit of help from a young lawyer - BJ Novak's Harry Sonneborn). He starts a real estate company and begins buying the plots for future McDonald's franchises. He leases the land directly to the franchisees and makes money hand-over-fist, effectively "owning" any new location built under the McDonald's umbrella.
As the money comes in, Ray's true character begins to show. He begins scheming to cut the McDonald brothers out of the business, strongarms his franchisees, and even divorces his wife for a younger woman. The influx of money and power turns a normal (if a bit ambitious) guy into a ruthless, cutthroat businessman.
To make a long story short, it's not a happy ending. Ray eventually succeeds in boxing the brothers out of the business, albeit with a hefty buyout. In a cruel twist, they're allowed to own and operate their original hamburger shop - but they can't use the McDonald's name. They aren't allowed to use their own last name for their business, as it's now owned by Ray Kroc. Their small shop, now called "The Big M," closes six years later.
The sad thing about this story is that it's true! The lesson is pretty clear here. There is nothing wrong with money, but it shouldn't be our sole focus in life, as it was for Ray Kroc. Two biblical passages come to mind. The first is Matthew 6:24, where Jesus says, "No one can serve two masters...you cannot serve God and wealth."
Wealth was God for Ray Kroc, and it destroyed his relationships and his morality. He ruined the lives of the McDonald brothers and his wife, and he played a large part in the lowering of the quality of food that many Americans consume with his corner-cutting. This is not to say that earning money is bad, only that it should not be our first or only priority.
This leads nicely into the second passage, from 1 Timothy 6:10, where Saint Paul tells us that "the love of money is the root of all evil." He's right! Contrary to Michael Douglas' famous line from Wall Street, greed is neither good nor right. Money is not inherently bad, but placing too much importance on it is.
Ray Kroc was an ordinary man with extraordinary business prospects. He hit it big, and it changed him for the worse. Let us never allow ourselves to see our priorities become as disordered as his did, and let us always remember which master we serve! See you next Wednesday for our next edition of Faith in Film.