When I was a child in the 1960s, a trip to McDonald’s was a special occasion. We got to eat in the car, avoid utensils, and see our friends. And we could be really messy. How clearly I remember how those golden arches seemed to reach to the sky.

Years later, when stories about the business began to circulate, I first heard the tale of a salesman named Ray Kroc who led the company’s phenomenal growth. Because Hollywood loves to capture such stories, it was only a matter of time until the movies decided to fit the truth about Kroc’s journey into the expectations for mass entertainment.

This film, The Founder, certainly entertains with its rendition of Kroc’s march to millions. We get to see Michael Keaton, for the third year in a row, in a leading role in a high-profile film. We are exposed to the work of talented costumers and production designers who recreate a period filled with colorful cars and looks. And we get to step back in time with the detailed recreation of the old-style McDonald’s restaurants and experience.

Beyond the look of the film, however, The Founder leaves us hungry for more. This is not a serious examination of how a man absorbed the ideas of the others into his dream to create an empire. While the movie spends a lot of time recreating the look of Kroc’s world, it does little to help us understand how Kroc thinks, what drives his ambition, fuels his anger and inspires his choices. We don’t see the quiet moments when he figures out what moves to make. We only see the moves. The Founder stops with surface. Yes, it looks good as a movie. But, when it ends, we recall little about the man who changed the face of how the world eats.

For Michael Keaton – who almost won an Oscar for Birdman and should have been nominated for Spotlight – the role could have sent him back to the nomination roster. But he’s hampered by the way Robert Siegel’s script only focuses on the public moments. We see Kroc with others but little of what motivates his behavior.

We see a series of predictable scenes with his wife, played by Laura Dern, without learning about her role in his life. And, when Kroc meets a woman who stimulates his interest, we can predict, in about 30 seconds, what will happen in their relationship. Only in the scenes involving the brothers McDonald, who initially think of the fast food concept, does the film pierce below the surface.

Otherwise, the limited depth of the script limits what we learn. We leave the film understanding more about the burgers than about the man behind the phenomena. And we wish that Keaton – such a fine actor given the opportunity – could have more to work with.

Still, The Founder looks good. And anyone who remembers those early burgers will savor this trip down memory lane. But going to the movies should be more than a visit to the past. A movie should help us discover something we didn’t know. Had The Founder helped us learn more about the founder we might feel better nourished by this visit. Otherwise, it’s a marvelous moving photo album that leaves us hungry for more.

The Founder

Content: Medium. The story of how a simple idea of fast food hamburgers became a global sensation should give any movie enough to chew on. But The Founder avoids the layers.

Entertainment: Medium. While Michael Keaton makes the most of the role, and delivers an entertaining performance, he could have done more with a deeper script.

Message: Medium. Because the film stays on the surface, its story offers little opportunity for a lasting moral. We get a lot of burgers but little meaning.

Relevance: Medium. The movie offers a fun opportunity to revisit the past. And its recreation of that time is beautifully accomplished.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Any opportunity to learn more about a global icon can prompt a worthwhile conversation. But the film could tell us more.

(The Founder, running 1 hour and 55 minutes, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The Reel Dad rating: 3.5 Popcorn Buckets.)

 

How biopics can leave us hungry for more

By Mark Schumann

As we experience with The Founder, many larger-than-life people can be interesting subjects for less than satisfying motion pictures. Unfortunately, some biopics get so trapped in the superficial that they ultimately reveal less about their subjects than we’d like to know. Here are a few examples of recent biopics that could have offered so much more.

Brian Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.

Brian Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.

Trumbo (2015)

Hollywood loves to make movies about Hollywood. So it’s no surprise that the journey of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would make it to the screen. Like The Founder, Trumbo looks great on the surface. With glamorous costumes, lavish sets and exaggerated characters, the film recreates a time gone by when many considered movies the most powerful communication tool in the country. This pleases the people who make the movies but not the politicians who fear Communist infiltration. And that’s because, back in 1947, leaders in Washington start to pressure movie moguls to blacklist anyone who be a Communist.

As the film and the hunt begin, Dalton Trumbo rides the crest of movie success. With a happy family, big house and strong reputation, he is the “go to” writer for any studio that wants to make a hit movie. But he’s also an outspoken champion of workers’ rights, a position that doesn’t set well with the big shots. Using archival footage, including some clips of future President Ronald Reagan, the movie paints Trumbo as a candid, intelligent voice who openly discusses politics and his membership in the Communist Party. But, as the movie quickly reveals, not everyone ready for that story.

Like many biopics, Trumbo tries to cover too much time in too little time. But in the hands of Brian Cranston – much as he accomplished as LBJ on Broadway and television in All the Way – Trumbo emerges as a complex, compelling man of conviction. The actor creates a three-dimensional character from what could have emerged as caricature given how the screenplay races through significant events. Cranston doesn’t let the words on the page limit his impact. While the narrative can make light of substantive situations, Cranston slows the pace to reveal a man devoted to his work and grounded by his beliefs. The actor makes us believe how someone may have to choose to survive no matter his conviction for what is right and wrong.

Secretariat (2010)

Oh, this movie looks good.

From the detail of the production design, to the authenticity in the cars to the sheen of the costumes, the movie takes us back to a colorful moment in history.

Yes, Secretariat – based on a true story about a race horse considered by many to be the greatest ever on the track – finds its comfort in its visually stylish telling of a story behind a legendary competitor. And if we already know what happens on the race track in 1973, director Randall Wallace builds in enough excitement to keep our attention. Of course, this is a Disney film where most everyone does live happily ever after.

The story is, actually, vintage Disney. And if it hadn’t actually happened, someone at the studio probably would have thought it up.

When her mother dies, and her elderly father begins to fail, a mother of four must come to terms with her heritage and her ambition. She was raised, in Virginia, in the world of race horsing. It’s in her blood. But she lives, with her family, in Colorado at a time when people did not travel as often as they do today. nor did women frequently compete with men in leading businesses. So when she decides to put everything on the line – including her financial security and inheritance from her father – to prepare a horse to race for the Triple Crown, this brave lady confronts her destiny and follows her instinct. And each time the horse is in a race, she pictures herself crossing the finish line, too

Yes, the story is predictable, and the outcome is generally known. What is most interesting here is the change in the owner, as she evolves from a shy mother to an outspoken horse owner; the multi-layered working relationship with the horse’s trainer; and the dynamics of the family she temporarily leaves behind to pursue her dream. We just don’t get to know her very well.

Unbroken (2014)

If good intentions make a great film, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken lands at the top of the list.

From its opening combat sequence, this adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Louis Zamperini looks like a film that knows what it wants to be. As we follow the initial confrontation, we get the idea this film is about bravery. As we watch the first flashback, we learn that our hero has a complex past. And as we see the relieved soldiers return from the opening encounter with the enemy, we guess the next journey may not be so smooth.

We know all this because Jolie – who brings an unconventional view to many causes – chooses to direct her movie as a conventional Hollywood biopic. While her approach doesn’t make the story any less meaningful, it gives the film a familiar feel because so much of what we see reminds us of what we have seen in other movies. If she makes this choice to make us comfortable with potentially uncomfortable content, she succeeds. Making movies is about making choices. To make her film accessible, Jolie chooses to make Unbroken look and sound like many other movies.

We learn, from the flashbacks, that Zamperini overcomes a turbulent childhood to become a championship runner who competes, at age 19, in the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After World War II begins, and “Louie” finds himself on a B-24 in the Pacific, the anger of his youth transitions into a fierce determination to do his job well. When his plane crashes into the ocean, leaving him lost at sea with two other survivors, he finds his grit challenged by the odds to survive. And when his Japanese rescuers send him to a Prisoner of War camp in Tokyo, the film follows the man’s arduous journey to find his way home.

Jolie reveals her love for Zamperini, and his story, in each frame of her movie. Her choice to salute his bravery with a conventional film matters less than the authenticity of her intentions.

Miles Ahead (2016)

Some movies, though, have better intentions than results.

I wanted to like Don Cheadle’s labor of love, Miles Ahead. I am fascinated with Miles Davis and I respect Don Cheadle. Unlike some movie celebrities, this actor hides from public attention, refuses to grab headlines and makes films to articulate his passions and beliefs. The result is a stirring collection of performances in such films as Hotel Rwanda (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Traffic and Crash.

Cheadle’s outstanding performance as Miles Davis is the best reason to see his film about Miles Davis. But co-writer Cheadle and director Cheadle let down actor Cheadle by permitting holes in the script and convention in the direction to undermine the power of the portrayal. As Cheadle creates complex layers of this legendary jazz musician, he knows precisely what buttons to push to make us believe in the demons behind this man’s behavior. But the script, with its focus on a couple of days in Davis’ life, fails to provide enough context to explain the significance of specific moments while the direction never finds a consistent rhythm. Actor Cheadle is so good that he almost makes the movie make sense. But no actor is that good.

Rather than follow a conventional biopic approach, Cheadle tries to make the film feel as loose as one of Davis’ improvisations. By focusing on just a couple of days in Davis’ life, the film tries to reveal the highs and lows of his routine, from wild parties where Davis entertains to the sessions where he writes to lonely moments when he fears. We encounter a man so afraid of himself, his music and his future that he stops himself from creating what the world loves about his work. His music becomes a way to torture himself as much as it creates a channel for him to connect with others.

We get all this because, in his performance, Cheadle hits all the right notes. He makes us believe this man can be the narcissist we see, the genius we observe, the terrified man we encounter. He reveals the difficulties that Davis brings to his work and his life, his inability to commit, his failure to resist temptation, his willingness to hurt those closest to him. And he confirms the brilliance of Davis’ work as a man who knew what sounds he could make even when he didn’t believe he could still make them.

 

What happens with these films?

Sometimes, behind the screen, editing what we see on the screen can be the filmmaker’s biggest challenge.

It can be difficult for anyone to say “no.” Especially when it comes to creating a film.

See you at the movies.