Capitalism: A Love Story

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“We are here to tell the truth! People say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out! Well I love America!”

                                              -Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in “Born on The Fourth of July”

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

                                                                                                                                                           -Thomas Jefferson

I was a little worried about Michael Moore’s film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It covers the catastrophic economic fallout from 2007 to 2009 and presents a very harsh indictment of the current economic order in the United States. Throughout the movie, Moore shows us families being evicted from homes which they have owned for years, and how many get swindled out of them without them realizing the trap they are ensnared in until much too late. He also looks at how Wall Street treats the country’s economy like a reckless night of gambling in Las Vegas, and at how Goldman Sachs gained a frightening amount of leverage over congress at an economically vulnerable time. In short, it is Moore’s attack on all things capitalism, and of how it is an evil which is ruining the fabric of our once great country.

While it may seem ironic how Moore would take on capitalism, especially when he has benefited so much from it over the years, he creates a very compelling case here. Whether you think he is telling the truth or simply manipulating facts to his own advantage, he remains the most entertaining documentary filmmaker in American films. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is honestly one of his best films to date, and it combines some truly devastating moments along with some very funny ones. The movie does need those humorous moments, otherwise this could have been one of the most emotionally draining cinematic experiences ever.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” starts off in a way both hilarious and frightening. Moore starts off with one of those cheesy, snicker-inducing 1950’s instructional movies about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It resembles all those films we were constantly subjected to throughout our school years. While the movie plays out along with the stiff narration, Moore inserts clips from the Reagan era White House, and continues all the way through the Clinton era, not to mention both of the Bushes, showing us how the fate which befell the Romans is very much alike to what is happening to America right now. Clearly, he sees us following in the footsteps of a society destroyed through endless greed and avarice, and he is amazed people want to hang on to this damaged system regardless of how bad it is.

From there, Moore takes us to a family in Peoria, Illinois getting evicted from their home. It’s one of the saddest moments in the film, and to add insult to injury, the family ends up getting thrown out of their home much earlier than they had expected. They were given a couple of weeks originally, but it turns out the bank which repossessed their home had just sold it to another family who were ever so eager to get settled in it.

I’ve been looking at these foreclosures from a distance, and I felt a good portion of them were due to owners not living up to their responsibilities. But while this may be the case to a certain extent, Moore creates a very interesting case of how the banks ended up swindling many families out of their homes because the banks continued to charge them more and more for their mortgage. For those looking to become homeowners, the movie is a reminder of how important it is to read the fine print of every contract you sign.

For Moore, capitalism seemed like such a great gift to our country when he was growing up in Flint, Michigan. The way he saw it, it provided his dad with a good job, helped give his family free health care, helped to pay for him to go to college without falling into tremendous debt over student loans, etc. But then Reagan came along and ruined it all from Moore’s perspective. “Capitalism: A Love Story” doesn’t necessarily portray Reagan as an evil man, but it views him more as a puppet for the banking industry among others. Before the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo” came along, the rich were apparently given a 90% tax on what they made, so naturally, they weren’t very happy about this. With Reagan taking over as President, the banks were able to gain control of all things money related, and they created massive tax breaks for the rich. From there, the cost of living rose faster than the cost of living, and prices on things like health care skyrocketed to an exorbitant rate. Even prisons and juvenile detention halls became for-profit businesses where the sentences turned out to be longer than you were told. In short, things were changing, and the price of those things started to get higher and higher.

Much of the American public seemed to be sold on the idea we could be rich too, and therein lays the big lie of Reganomics. In actuality, his policies throughout the 1980’s resulted in creating a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, and the middle class at times threatened to be rendered extinct. Moore presents this as the point in our country where things started to change to where the rich benefited more than anyone else. Greed became a powerful influence on everyone, and much of America turned into a “me, me, me” society as opposed to one which sought to help the less fortunate. He also shows how it went from there to the Clinton era and, more horrifyingly so, to the George W. Bush era in which the tax cuts for the rich almost became permanent.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is kind of a semi-sequel to Moore’s “Roger & Me” which came out 20 years ago. In that film, he pursued General Motors chairman Roger Smith for an interview over the closing of the car factory in his hometown. The closing resulted in a tremendous loss of jobs, all despite the fact GM was posting record profits. All these years later, Moore still cannot get a meeting with the CEO of GM. What occurred in Flint, Michigan all those years ago gave him a chance to tell the automotive industry, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

One moment in “Capitalism: A Love Story” which really stayed with me was when President Reagan addressed the bankers on Wall Street, and one of the most powerful bankers standing right next to him told, not asked, him to “speed it up.” Wait a second, Reagan was one of the most powerful people on the planet at that time, and someone next to him was telling him to speed it up? It makes you wonder who was really in charge of America back then.

A truly heart breaking scene comes when a former Wal-Mart employee talks about how, when his wife died at a young age, the company ended up making thousands of dollars off her death. It turns out Wal-Mart took out life insurance policies on all their workers, and ended up profiting from their passing. To make matters even worse, the younger the worker, the more money they get. Now fact checkers everywhere are going to point out how Wal-Mart has since ended these policies, but Moore does mention this during the closing credits.

Another section of the film which hit close to home was when Moore points out how airline pilots are paid less than the manager of a Taco Bell; about $19,000 a year for starting pay. My brother is an airline pilot, and while he makes better wages now, those first few years were a struggle to say the least. It seems almost criminal how these huge airline companies which make millions of dollars end up paying their pilots so pitifully. Thus, we get an example here of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Now let’s take a moment here because we all know many will be accusing Moore (many of whom will not even bother watching this film) with thoughtlessly manipulating his on-camera subjects and distorting what they say to his own advantage. Granted, there are moments where his camera focuses on crying family members a little longer than what feels comfortable. While the feeling of manipulation is hard to ignore, getting angry at Moore for showing this will be missing the point. He wants you to be mad. With “Capitalism: A Love Story,” he means to stir up your anger because he does not want you to react passively to what you are witnessing. He wants you to take action against what is happening because he is really sick and tired of doing this all by himself. Can you blame him? Many of us are viewing this economic breakdown and corruption from a distance, and we can’t spend the rest of our lives letting all this go unchecked.

But if scenes of everyday working class people getting heartlessly fleeced doesn’t frighten or enrage you, then the latter half of the movie where nerve-wracked members of congress get swayed by Goldman Sachs among other banks to bail them out so the banking industry could survive should do the trick. Nobody I know of was happy to hear about this, and we got even more pissed off when they got million dollar bonuses which were undeserved. There was a great article in Rolling Stone of how Goldman Sachs circumvented the economic crises of past and present to benefit themselves. Seeing this play out on the screen brought back my own deep feelings of unrestrained infuriation at what these bankers were doing with taxpayer dollars. Why exactly do we have to pay for the mess they created anyway? What happened to accountability?

Many still believe Moore is nothing more than an anti-American zealot who has nothing better to do than say bad things about our country. The conservative comedy “An American Carol” had a character like him trying to convince fellow citizens to abolish the Fourth of July as a holiday. But what made me really love the last half of this film is how he shows how the power of the people really did win out. If you still think he is a hater of this country after watching this, you may need to remove yourself from the cave you have been hiding in.

Moore shows how it was the will of the people which prevented the first economic stimulus, largely engineered by members of Goldman Sachs, from passing. At seeing what was about to occur, Americans everywhere contacted their representatives, urging them not to pass this bill. There were enough house representatives who saw how the banks were in the position of almost completely controlling the legal process, and they rallied against them for the sake of the country. This was all the result of American citizens speaking up loudly.

The spirit of the American people is shown even more strongly when we witness the laid off workers of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago do an in-house protest at their place of employment. This came about because none of them were paid the severance promised from Bank of America. We also get a look at community groups like LIFFT in Miami which helped unfortunate families and “liberated” the houses they were evicted from. The police came out in force of course, but they ended up not arresting anybody probably because it wasn’t worth the trouble. Then we see Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, the pilot who saved the lives of all 155 passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 when he landed it in the Hudson River, go before Congress to protest the way pilots were treated in general and how underpaid they are.

I should add when the section regarding Captain Sullenberger came up, I was afraid Moore would bash him in some way. But he actually applauds Sullenberger for taking his newfound fame and using it to help others who love their job of being a pilot. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest moments as Moore shows how the media seemed to like him more as a hero instead of someone who stands up against the companies for not paying pilots enough. Moore ends up putting some patriotic band music over the soundtrack to shut out Sullenberger, because no one really likes a Debbie Downer.

After all the films Moore has made criticizing people and polices of the United States, it seems amazing anyone would talk to him on camera. But he does get people like University of Missouri professor Bill Black, and Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur to talk about what they see as the ills of capitalism. Furthermore, he even talks to the Catholic priest who married him and his wife who says capitalism is a sin and not very Christian-like.

Kaptur is one of the movie’s most compelling voices, and she said the first economic stimulus bill would have been a disaster for democracy had it been passed. It would have allowed the banks to have more control over taxpayer money and the legislative process, hence rewriting the law books we have come to study all these years. The banks may want to concentrate the nation’s wealth among the 1% of the population who has it, but they cannot be allowed to silence the voices of the 99%.

Black himself comes off as one of the most intelligent people seen here, and it is heartbreaking to see how some of the smartest minds in America saw this economic disaster coming from miles away. He compares the fallout to a water damn which breaks apart, but of how we could see those little cracks forming. The fact many people like him were silenced or had their character smeared beyond all repair is shameful. For them, they saw it as only a matter of time before the banking industry came crashing down, so there was no way they could have been surprised by any of this.

I was also really pleased to see Moore stick it to the Democrats as well as the Republicans. While the Republicans may share the largest blame, the Democrats cannot be excluded because many of them are every bit as guilty in what transpired. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum they were on, politicians of all kinds were bought out with what seemed like very little effort. Truth is, I am seriously frustrated with both major parties, and Moore taps into this because many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, feel the same way.

By the way, if you really think that Moore is this left-leaning zealot, keep in mind he has spent many years criticizing both parties, and his ire at Democrats seems much larger because he expects more from them. I’m sure if Moore had it his way, Ralph Nader would have been President by now.

As for President Barrack Obama, Moore steers clear of saying anything bad about him, probably because many still see him as a symbol of hope. If Obama does foul things up in Afghanistan, I’m sure Moore might consider doing something on it. But that coupled with the power of people made the last half of this movie seem like the feel-good movie of the year, and this is regardless of how exaggerated it all may seem to those who cannot stand this baseball cap wearing filmmaker.

In the end, Moore is not out to make you repeat everything he says or believes in like it’s the gospels. His attack against capitalism is not entirely waterproof, and much more blame could be thrown at how corporate America has become so corrupted. But it doesn’t matter because what he wants is for you to be angry, and to fight against those who would try to wrestle away the powers given to us in the Constitution.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is really one of his best films in how he attacks many policies this country has adopted, and then counters it with proof that the power still does belong to the people. It does to the banking industry and deregulation what “Sicko” did to the health care industry, and it is informative, funny, moving, and endlessly entertaining.

For those who wonder why Michael Moore hasn’t left America yet, see this movie to find out. Like him, you may hate what this country is doing to its people, but you are not about to leave it.

 * * * * out of * * * *

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Michael Keaton, Laura Dern and John Carroll Lynch Talk About ‘The Founder’

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The Founder” recently had its press conference in Los Angeles, California, and it took place the week before President Barack Obama is set to leave the White House and Donald Trump will move in. While no one brought up their political views during this press conference, the movie felt more timely than perhaps its filmmakers intended as it illustrates the birth of unrestrained capitalism. Considering we have a die-hard capitalist set to be the next President of the United States, it’s hard not think about the corporate world and corporations as we watch Michael Keaton play Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois who discovered a different kind of restaurant run by Maurice and Richard McDonald and eventually turned it into a billion-dollar franchise. But in the process, Ray convinces just about everyone around him that he was the one who founded McDonald’s, and he eventually steals the brothers’ business right out from under them.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” deals with a number of different subjects like capitalism (sustainable and unrestrained), business, greed, the corporate world, etc. The movie also makes you wonder if it is even remotely possible to run a corporation without losing your heart and soul in the process. But most of all, it makes you see how everyone doesn’t see the American Dream in the same way.

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Laura Dern also stars in the movie as Ray’s wife, Ethel, and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the elements in the story which were hiding just beneath the surface. Also, she talked about seeing the movie with her daughter and how they reacted to a key scene involving the McDonald brothers.

Laura Dern: The piece that interested me, which was probably the piece I knew about Ray Kroc or McDonald’s, was this question of the introduction of the filler. I was fascinated that the film pointed it out, but also this question of how did it turn from real food to how we can make a fast buck and potentially poison people. What is that? And the subversive question which interested me the most was this question of, can capitalism hold compassion, and what is that story? And so, that moved me so much when John (Lee Hancock) first spoke to me about it, and hearing all these amazing people were involved. I would just love to add because I thought it was so incredible, I got to see the film last night with my daughter who is just turning 12, and to hear from her perspective, because I like to think it’s politically subversive and a commentary on this question of empathy versus corporations and can there be a place for both; I was talking about my favorite shot which just brings me to tears of these two gentlemen with their arms around each other watching the McDonald’s section of their sign be removed. I was talking about it, and when we go in the car my daughter said, “Mom, you know when those brothers were holding each other at the end?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “That’s how I felt after (President Barack Obama’s) farewell address. We just don’t know what’s next.” And that was the film to me, and I just loved for a 12-year-old the details of the story, the point was she got what I think you all intended, and I was really moved by that.

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John Carroll Lynch (above on the right) co-stars as the hard-working Maurice McDonald who is excited to see his brother’s restaurant become an even bigger success than it already is. He excitedly spoke about what he knew about Ray Kroc, but more importantly, he described how Ray’s level of thinking has become the typical kind of thinking for everyone in this day and age.

John Carroll Lynch: I knew Ray Kroc in kind of the way that Michael (Keaton) was talking about. I thought of him as the founder even though I knew there were the brothers before him. I also knew that he had owned the (San Diego) Padres, and I also knew that after his death particularly that his wife gave away massive amounts of money, and I would hear her name on National Public Radio all the time. So, that was my personal relationship with it, but knowing the story a little bit and seeing the things that are absolutely bedrock, admirable American traits of entrepreneurship, of persistence, of salesmanship, of a sense of seeing something and how far it can go, of vision, all of those things are incredibly attractive. And what I love about the way the movie unfolds was how there’s a moment when he could tell the truth about the origin of the company, and you might not feel so badly about what happens if he could just give somebody else credit. If he could just be humble enough to go, there were these two brothers who had this amazing idea, and I figured out a way how to make it on every street in America with this other guy’s help. He could have said any of those things, but every moment he has any opportunity to tell the truth, he can’t do it because he needs to be the guy. There’s also a moment in the story where you watch him kind of digest the lie over time, and it becomes the truth to him. That is very indicative of where we are right now which is what we are told is in some ways, to many of us, more important than the actual truth, and we just want to believe the easy part of what’s said and not the hard parts, and I include myself in that. I don’t want to have to deal with the hard parts. I don’t want to have to deal with the fact that people are destroyed or land is destroyed. I really, really like Egg McMuffins (everybody laughs), and that’s where my dilemma is.

Now whatever you may think about McDonald’s before and after you see “The Founder,” their breakfast menu is simply delicious. Even if eating there threatens my cholesterol levels, I have to have a Sausage McMuffin with Egg or an Egg White Delight every once in a while.

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Then there was Keaton who talked at length about how the meaning of the American Dream has changed drastically over time into something which is largely unrealistic. The more he talked about it, the more one had to wonder if it even exists in its most simple form anymore. With wages failing to catch with cost of living increases, you have to wonder if it is even within one’s reach these days.

Michael Keaton: I did some press early on in Europe. I heard it there and I heard it from a few journalists from outside the U.S. yesterday, and this morning on the phone they bring it up. It’s interesting because the U.S. journalists don’t bring this up, and that is the issue of the American Dream. This is fascinating to me unless I missed something. We can go on and on about consumerism, waste, greed, etc., etc. Their perception of what the American Dream is, and let me be a little more specific, not to miss the issue with such a generalization, when they talk about the American Dream, they do it in relation to billions and mansions, and they kind of make the assumption of an extravagant lifestyle of private jets, owning islands and everything. That’s fascinating to me because my concept of the American Dream, unless I missed something here, in its simplest form, is work hard enough and there will be a job available and you can buy a house, and you can buy a car to get you back and forth from work so where you can afford that house, and have couple of kids who can attend a good school, you get a good vacation maybe, and maybe a second car. Unless I missed something, that ain’t a bad thing. I think that’s what it was. That’s not what the perception is. It’s this other thing. I want to say it is an ugly thing. I have no problem with billionaires, especially billionaires like Bill Gates who do the things they do or my friend Yvon Chouinard who I keep referring to. Pick one. There are a bunch of them out there. But there’s this other perception out there. Am I nuts? That’s not what the idea was.

Now while these discussions might have taken away from talking about the making of “The Founder,” they stayed with me long after the press conference had ended. The movie is largely about capitalism and of how it can be exercised in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and it’s hard not to think about our dysfunctional relationship with the corporate world in the new millennium. Whatever way you want to look at it, “The Founder” is a compelling cinematic experience which chronicles the rise of a franchise we are all very familiar with and which plays a significant part in our lives whether we want it to or not.

“The Founder” opens in theaters this Friday, January 20th. Be sure to check it out!

Poster and photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

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Check out the video, courtesy of Movie Maniacs, to view the entire press conference.

The Founder

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Watching Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who acquired McDonald’s and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise in “The Founder,” reminded me of his role as Hunt Stevenson in “Gung Ho.” Granted, there’s a number of fast-talking characters from Keaton’s long resume which could have come to mind, but “Gung Ho” proved to be one of my favorite Ron Howard films. Like Hunt, Ray is eager to convince everyone around him he knows what’s best for everyone, but while Hunt’s efforts are altruistic, Ray’s speak more to the kind of capitalism which is very unrestrained. Either way, you know you have the right actor portraying someone eager to get things his own way or no way at all.

“The Founder” is, yes, “based on a true story,” but we don’t even need to be told this because it is far too easy to invent a character like Ray Kroc these days. The movie opens up in the 1950’s when Ray, a salesman from Illinois, is trying to sell milkshake mixers to drive-in diners and failing to do so. While his face is filled with confidence, his mind is being subjected to countless scores of rejections as failure haunts him at every corner. As we watch Ray alone in his motel room, listening to a self-esteem record where a narrator talks about the importance of confidence, we see him desperate to outrun failure as he is now in his 50’s, a time where most men hang it up and enter retirement (back in that decade anyway).

Then one day, Ray comes across a little hamburger stand out in San Bernardino, California called McDonald’s. Immediately, he is stunned and amazed by the speedy system its owners have come up with which produces high quality food in a very short period of time. Upon taking the brothers who own the restaurant, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), out to dinner, he soon offers to turn their restaurant into a bona fide franchise. From there, we know it’s going to be an interesting ride, albeit one filled with countless speed bumps and strong disagreements.

Now it would have been far too easy for the filmmakers to vilify Ray Kroc as he essentially stole the McDonald brothers’ business right out from under them, but director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel have more on their minds than reducing this man to a mere villain. From the start, we see the desperation on Ray’s face as he is at the age where most men retire, but he still sees the potential of success waiting for him regardless of how many road blocks get put up in his path. His fear of failure becomes the driving force behind his business decisions, and while it eventually reveals him to be ruthless in his quest for dominance, we can certainly understand where the drive comes from.

The role of Ray was made for Keaton, and it’s impossible to think of another actor who could have played this businessman as effectively as the “Birdman” actor does here. It fits perfectly into his talents as a fast talker and as someone who can convince you he is on your side even when the character he plays is not. As portrayed here, Ray is a complex character whose motivations are controlled by desperation and fear of failure, and Keaton nails every complexity perfectly to where we are completely sucked into Ray’s realm of business dealing even as Ray begins to take credit for things he did not create.

I also admired the portrayal of the McDonald brothers as they are shown to be decent Americans who struggled with failure themselves until they found success with their little hamburger stand. It should be noted that the brothers were never uninterested in turning McDonald’s into a franchise (early attempts to do so did not work out for them), but were instead interested in a form of capitalism which allowed them firm control over the quality of food and service at each restaurant to where they could make a healthy profit and live comfortably without trying to overrun their competition.

It also helps that “The Founder” has two terrific actors portraying Mac and Dick McDonald in John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Lynch, in particular, has one incredible scene which involves him going into a five-page monologue where he vividly describes how the first McDonald’s restaurant came into existence. It’s an exhilarating moment to watch as the creation of this now globally dominant fast food chain reminds us of the greatness of America as it is a country where just about anyone can succeed in business if they try really hard enough and are persistent as well.

Laura Dern also shows up as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Ethel. Now this could have been a thankless role as we mostly see Ethel staying back at home while Ray is on the road trying to make a sale, but Dern makes the most of it as she shows how Ethel represents the kind of life anyone else would be satisfied with. Dern never portrays Ethel as a constant whiner, but instead as a sympathetic person who struggles to support and understand her husband, a man whose appetites extend far beyond the dining room table and evenings out at local social events.

There’s also strong support on hand from actors like Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Ric Reitz, Justin Randell Brooke and Wilbur Fitzgerald who play characters that come to inform Ray’s business interests, interests which soon evolve into infinitely greedy ones. Another great stand out is Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith, the woman who would eventually become Ray’s second wife. Cardellini is fantastic as she sees in Ray a strong ambition which she wants to help advance, and she proves to have a strong chemistry with Keaton right from the first moment he spots her playing the piano.

Most of Hancock’s movies, “The Blind Side,” “The Rookie,” “The Alamo” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” have dealt with true-life stories, and like those movies, “The Founder” conveys these stories in a way which feels remarkably down to earth. No one involved in this motion picture gets overwhelmed by the iconography of McDonald’s or the people involved in its making and its dominance, and it makes for a deeply involving cinematic experience. Hancock gets all the period details down perfectly to where we are believably transported back to a time where it seemed unthinkable to eat any meal without the use of silverware.

In some ways, I wished “The Founder” had dug even deeper into its subject matter to where the McDonald brothers were included more in the story, but it is still a compelling motion picture which makes the term “based on a true story” feel like it means something for a change. I also love how it is a movie which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. It deals with many things like the American dream, business, greed and the cost of success to a fascinating degree. But looking back, it is primarily about capitalism and of how it can be both good and bad. And considering how capitalism has become such an unrestrained thing to the detriment of many, it makes this movie all the timelier as it shows where capitalism in its most dominant form was born, and Gordon Gekko isn’t even in it.

“The Founder” ends with footage of the real Ray Kroc as he explains how McDonald’s came into being, but in his own way. Many things can be said about Ray as the final image of him in front of a McDonald’s restaurant leaves us in silence as he clearly claimed something which wasn’t even his to begin with. Then again, would it have become such an enormous enterprise without him? It’s hard to say otherwise.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to read what Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, and John Carroll Lynch have to say about “The Founder.”

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