Rated PG-13. Running Time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our contents Ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5
It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.
And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Ray Kroc and Willy Loman have one thing in common—they are both salesmen. But what a world of difference in their fates, as is well shown in what could be called The Life of a Salesman. Director John Lee Hancock, working with Robert Siegel’s screenplay and a good cast, follows the growth of a food franchise that feeds 1% of the world every day, from one hamburger restaurant in San Bernadine California to virtually every town in America and 119 other countries around the world. Virtually every American has been influenced by the gigantic McDonald’s Corporation, even those who never pass through its golden arches.
In the opening minutes of the film Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) seems destined to wind up like the failed salesman of Arthur Miller’s play. Ray has a smooth, well-practiced patter to how his Multimixer milkshake machine will increase a restaurant’s business, but virtually everyone turns him down. He is on the road in middle America, where some of the restaurant owners won’t even speak to him. When talking on the phone with his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) back in Illinois, he tries to make it seem that all is well.
One day, when he calls his office, his secretary Jane breaks the news that he has an order for six machines. Thinking it a mistake that anyone would want so many, he calls the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino and is told that there is a mistake—they want eight. Almost before he can say “milkshake,” Ray is traveling on Rt. 66, arriving at last at the McDonald brother’s restaurant. He cannot believe what he sees.
Earlier, Ray had experienced the inefficiencies of most drive-in restaurants at the time. Besides their mediocre food, he had to wait from 20 to 30 minutes for it to arrive, brought to him in his car by harried carhops. Too often there was a mistake in the order, but he was unable to correct it because the carhop had moved on to the next customer impatiently awaiting his food. Also, the places attracted too many teenagers who loitered about, creating a very unfriendly atmosphere.
Ray’s first surprise is that McDonald’s Restaurant is not a drive-in, but a walk-up restaurant, and there are two long lines in front of the two windows. A lady ahead of him tells him not to worry, the line moves quickly. And so it does, and Ray wonders if it is really food in the bag that is handed to him just a few seconds after he placed his order–burger, fries, and a soda for 35 cents. The hamburger and fries are served in paper wrappings rather than dishes, thus no expensive plates or silverware needing to be washed and dried. He asks the attendant where he is to eat the food, and he says in his car, at a park, or at home.
While he is eating on the bench in front of the service window, a mother and her two children join him. He realizes that this a family oriented place. He also notes that the quality of the food is better than that of the drive-ins. Ray goes inside to introduce himself to the busy Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), telling him he was the one who sold the milkshake machines. Mac shows him around, explain what they call their Speedee system of food preparation. Later that night at a sit-down restaurant he and his brother, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), describe how they arrived at their system through long experimentation, beginning at a parking lot where they chalked in where the grill, condiment station and everything else in the kitchen would be, and then put their employees through drill sessions, making changes as problems arose. The flashback sequence is enjoyable to watch, revealing both the persistence of the brothers and their ability to think way beyond the box in which other hamburger restaurants were stuck.
The rest of the film deals with the many obstacles that Ray meets on the long, winding road to success, perhaps the most formidable being the McDonald brothers themselves. They are geniuses at solving details of producing the food fast and efficiently, but they lack Ray’s broader vision. Fearful that changes threaten the quality of the food, they fight him when he wants to make changes that will expand the number of outlets—and in the long run we see Ray’s ruthlessness, stooping to dishonest means to get them to agree to his plans—plans that will leave them out in the cold and not even be allowed to use their own name for their original restaurant left to them. Thus, Ray Kroc is not the exemplar of the just man described in Psalms and Proverbs. However, in persistence he is like the midnight knocker in Jesus’ parable who will not quite until his friend opens the door. Still another parable character that comes to mind is the dishonest steward who feathers his nest at the expense of his boss when he learns he is about to be fired for his dishonesty.
I love the early scene in which Ray, after driving through numerous small towns observes crosses atop church buildings and American flags flying over courthouses and post offices. Meeting with the McDonald brothers, he exclaims, “Crosses. Flags. … Arches.” He goes on to say, “McDonald’s can be the new American church.” Quite a vision for what many consider is “just a fast food joint.” *
The film also shows the importance of being open to others, beginning with the businessman Harry Sonneborn (BJ Novak), who helps the almost bankrupt Ray discern that his business model needs to change, that he is as much in the real estate business as he is in the food business. He informs Ray that the real money will come from owning the land and then leasing it to a local franchise owner, rather than the owner buying the site himself. Another person of great help is the woman whom he steals right out from under the nose of her husband, who comes up with an idea that enables them to replace ice cream for their milkshakes with another product, which means that they do not require the large money guzzling freezers to store it.
As seen in this film Ray Croc is a hard worker, dedicated to the stringent quality control set up by the McDonald brothers. He at times works along with the crew at an Illinois outlet he had set up, even sweeping the front walkway late at night. When some of the rich snobs at his country club buy a franchise, but fail to keep the restaurants clean as well as turn out sloppy food, he moves quickly against them.
If only Ray Kroc were as moral as he was business savvy, but then this is a strength of the movie, Michael Keaton portraying the good and the dark side of the man. As to the darker side of the fast food industry, that of poor food nutrition and its contribution toward our nation’s obesity problem, nothing is said in the film. Though it is enjoyable to follow Ray Croc as he surmounts one problem after another, discerning viewers might wish for a film that is not just another American success story, but one with some social bite to it. Some might see the film as one long McDonald’s commercial supporting the success myth so basic to our culture. Others, focusing on Kroc’s morally objectionable acts, such as his maneuvering the brothers into accepting his promise of giving them a share of the franchise profits with just a handshake, could regard it as an indictment of capitalistic chicanery and degraded values. You be the judge.
*A good friend of mine, Dennis Benson, hangs out in his Michigan town at a couple of local restaurants speaking to lonely travelers, thereby giving them a measure of encouragement. The management at the local Ponderosa in appreciation of his welcoming ministry has designated “his table” with his name on a small plaque. Because he likes to write in a place abuzz with human activity, he also spends time at McDonald’s. While writing, he also keeps a sharp eye and ear out for fellow patrons in distress, often talking over problems with them. Noticing such encounters, staff members also have come to him to unburden themselves and receive a word of encouragement and hope, thus making him in effect the local McDonald’s chaplain. (His most recent story on FaceBook took place at the McDonald’s.) I hope he gathers together and publishes his accounts of his encounters, the way he did in his delightful book My Brother Dennis, back in the days when he hosted a call-in show on Pittsburgh’s KQV Radio. For more on Dennis, see my ReadtheSpirit blog.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.