Would you like lies with that?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

The Founder is a rather sur­pris­ing film to emerge from Hol­ly­wood at a time when the ma­jor stu­dios seem locked into an in­creas­ingly de­press­ing cy­cle of se­quels, re­makes, crude come­dies and sci-fi epics. As it hap­pens, The Founder isn’t made by one of the big com­pa­nies, and that’s prob­a­bly why it ap­pears to revel in de­pict­ing the ugli­est ex­cesses of ram­pant cap­i­tal­ism, the do­geat-dog world in which the small innovator sup­ply­ing a qual­ity prod­uct is all too quickly gob­bled up by a vast or­gan­i­sa­tion for which prof­its are all that mat­ters.

The film is about the early days of McDon­ald’s, the fast food com­pany so ubiq­ui­tous on an in­ter­na­tional scale that to find a com­mu­nity al­most any­where with­out those fa­mous golden arches seems al­most ab­nor­mal.

But the film­mak­ers — screen­writer Robert Siegel and di­rec­tor John Lee Han­cock — aren’t delv­ing into the qual­ity of the prod­uct and how it might af­fect the health of con­sumers; their aim here is to show how it all be­gan, and to do that they take us back to 1954 when an un­suc­cess­ful sales­man named Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was trudg­ing around the boon­docks of Mid­dle Amer­ica, at­tempt­ing, with lit­tle suc­cess, to sell five-spin­dle multi-mix­ers de­signed for the cre­ation of “de­li­cious frosty milk­shakes”. Ev­ery po­ten­tial cus­tomer re­ceives ex­actly the same pre­sen­ta­tion with­out vari­a­tion, and most de­cline to pur­chase.

Kroc (the name, un­for­tu­nately, seems only too apt) gets his in­spi­ra­tion from lis­ten­ing to long-play­ing records of the Power of Pos­i­tive Think­ing va­ri­ety, and he takes their mantra (“Noth­ing in the world can take the place of per­sis­tence”) to heart; he might be a lousy sales­man, but he’s never go­ing to give up.

It comes as quite a shock when his head of­fice in­forms him that a small com­pany in San Bernardino, Cal­i­for­nia, has or­dered eight of the mix­ers, and he as­sumes it must be a mis­take. It’s no mis­take, as he soon dis­cov­ers. The McDon­ald broth­ers, Dick (Nick Of­fer­man) and Mau­rice, aka Mac (John Carroll Lynch), have estab­lished a hugely pop­u­lar ham­burger restau­rant based on the prin­ci­ple of speed and qual­ity. The broth­ers, who for­merly worked in Hol­ly­wood at Columbia Pic­tures, first at­tempted to make money by run­ning a movie theatre, but that was a flop and now they’re on to a good thing. Their stream­lined pro­duc­tion of burg­ers and fries means that no cus­tomer has to wait for their food, and they show Kroc around their kitchens with pride.

With his keen eye for the main chance, Kroc quickly sums up the two McDon­alds: Dick is the busi­ness­man, Mac the ide­al­ist. Why not fran­chise? he sug­gests. They tell him they tried but it didn’t work — not enough qual­ity con­trol. But they agree to sign a con­tract with Kroc to ex­pand the busi­ness, and that’s the be­gin­ning of one of the great­est suc­cess sto­ries in the his­tory of food — or a tragic dis­as­ter, de­pend­ing on your point of view.

Kroc’s ded­i­ca­tion to cap­i­tal­ism is bound­less. He proves to be a sk­il­ful en­tre­pre­neur who sur­rounds him­self with like-minded peo­ple and a le­gal team that agrees with him that “con­tracts are like hearts — they’re meant to be bro­ken”. He sees from the start that “McDon­ald’s could be­come the new Amer­i­can church”; that the golden arches the broth­ers adopted as their logo could be seen as sym­bols of fam­ily and com­mu­nity, like churches and city halls. This “pro­fes­sional leech”, as he’s re­ferred to at one point, also ap­pre­ci­ates the im­por­tance of real es­tate; the value is not so much the restau­rants them­selves as the land on which they’re estab­lished.

Keaton is su­perb in this role, con­vinc­ingly re- pul­sive as the con­science-free go-get­ter who thinks noth­ing of be­tray­ing his pro­fes­sional and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships to get to the top. The film’s ti­tle is ironic; Kroc later claimed to be the founder of the com­pany that to­day still bears the names of its real founders. Han­cock, whose last film was the Dis­ney/Mary Pop­pins story, Sav­ing Mr Banks, clearly rev­els in this op­por­tu­nity to dig deep into the un­savoury his­tory of this great suc­cess story, and he in­cor­po­rates telling pho­to­graphs of the real-life Ray Kroc, and sev­eral of the other key char­ac­ters, as the film comes to an end. It’s a ter­rific movie — but maybe you should think twice be­fore de­cid­ing to en­joy a burger af­ter you see it. Co­in­ci­den­tally, The Fencer is set around the same time as The Founder, and also deals with a bul­ly­ing larger en­tity that at­tempts to swal­low a small, vul­ner­a­ble one; in this case, though, we’re talk­ing about coun­tries, not cor­po­ra­tions, and in the early 1950s it’s the Soviet Union that has ef­fec­tively in­vaded and taken over the Baltic states of Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia and in­cor­po­rated them into the USSR. The story told in this Es­to­nian-Fin­nish co-pro­duc­tion is, we’re as­sured, a true one.

As the film be­gins we’re re­minded that, for a pe­riod dur­ing the war, Ger­many oc­cu­pied Es­to­nia and forced young Es­to­ni­ans to join the Ger­man army. In the post­war era the Rus­sians had a pol­icy of send­ing any­one who wore a Ger­man uni­form to a labour camp. This is the fate Nelis (Mart Avandi) is at­tempt­ing to avoid, mainly by keep­ing a low pro­file. An Es­to­nian school­teacher, he has been liv­ing in Len­ingrad but has de­cided he’ll be more se­cure at home and has re­cently ar­rived in the small Es­to­nian town of Haap­salu to take up a teach­ing po­si­tion there.

Nelis quickly dis­cov­ers that the kids are keen on sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties but they’re frus­trated be­cause there’s no equip­ment avail­able. He es­tab­lishes a school of fenc­ing and, de­spite the dis­mis­sive and even hos­tile at­ti­tude of the school’s head­mas­ter (Hen­drik Toom­pere), trains a bunch of kids to take part in a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in Len­ingrad, though Nelis risks his own safety if he ac­com­pa­nies them there.

Sto­ries of in­spi­ra­tional teach­ers in­vari­ably make for feel-good movies, and this is no ex­cep­tion. See­ing the chil­dren grad­u­ally gain in con­fi­dence to the point that they’re able to take on a highly trained fenc­ing team from Moscow makes for plea­sur­able cinema.

While bat­tling au­thor­ity fig­ures and at­tempt­ing to keep his head down, Nelis finds time for ro­mance with a fel­low teacher (Ur­sula Ratasepp), un­aware at first that the head­mas­ter — por­trayed as a stock movie vil­lain — has in­sti­gated an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his past.

Films from the smaller Baltic coun­tries rarely sur­face in Aus­tralian cine­mas, mak­ing The Fencer par­tic­u­larly wel­come. It’s an as­sured piece of work and, as con­fi­dently di­rected by Klaus Haro, it in­trigues for much of its length, build­ing to a sus­pense­ful cli­max. Some el­e­ments seem a lit­tle sim­pli­fied, but over­all this is a pleas­ant sur­prise.

Michael Keaton as en­tre­pre­neur Ray Kroc in a scene from The Founder

Mart Avandi and a young pro­tege in a scene from The Fencer

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