“Is this a great country or what?” asked Michael Keaton’s Billy Blazejowski, a bold young capitalist, in 1982’s “Night Shift.” Three decades later, Keaton’s bold middle-aged capitalist Ray Kroc says, “Amen.”
It’s too bad that Keaton plays Kroc as a grasping, alcoholic sleaze as he builds the McDonald’s brand into an all-American empire, but I forgive the movie’s cheap shots because this is one of the most thorough and satisfying depictions of business — everything from quality control to cost-cutting and branding — ever put on film. Future tycoons growing up in China and India are going to see this film, overlook the unnecessary snark, and be hooked on the idea of coming to America and making capitalist fortunes.
Kroc is a struggling 52-year-old gadget salesman — his latest item is a milkshake machine — when, in 1954, he comes across a San Bernardino, Calif., stand selling 15-cent hamburgers that shames every slow-moving, badly managed drive-in restaurant from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Intrigued, he asks the owners, Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman), how it’s possible to organize a food joint that gets you a cheap and tasty order in 30 seconds.
They oblige — in a montage about the invention of fast food that amounts to a 10-minute MBA. Yet the brothers say that due to management frustrations they can’t expand the idea beyond four locations, which is a bummer because down in Phoenix they have this branch with an especially cute gimmick: golden arches.
Kroc, though, has a vision: All across America, he explains, he has seen flags and churches, churches and flags. What’s missing? Golden arches. The scene is played with a satirical tone but students of economics will note the consonance: Capitalism is indeed a blessing, one closely linked to American ideals of liberty and individualism. The McDonald brothers sign up with this prophet of profit and he starts to open franchises all over the Midwest.
Though director John Lee Hancock’s film, adroitly written by Robert Siegel, see the McDonald brothers as victims of Kroc’s conniving, there’s enough information for viewers to make their own judgments about Kroc’s many innovations, not least of which was a real-estate gambit. The brothers weren’t naive about their original contract, didn’t properly exploit their Henry Ford-like ideas about efficiency and knew nothing about branding. Kroc may not have exactly been the “founder” of McDonald’s, as he styled himself, but there’s no disputing that he built a humble takeout stand into one of the planet’s greatest companies. As for the details of Kroc’s finally buying out the brothers, the movie’s version of events is hotly disputed.
Hollywood — founded by great American businessmen — has always had a strange relationship to other businesses, at best incurious but usually hostile and the movie’s jibes come across as tired and obligatory. We see Kroc swilling Canadian Club in about 50 consecutive scenes to indicate he’s a bad man, though alcohol plays no role whatsoever in the plot. (At any rate, if whiskey can fuel such acumen, I’ll have what he’s having.)
Rude gestures aside, though, this is a thrilling, dynamic, often very funny movie full of fascinating granular detail — a great American story about a great American business.