What connects Steve Jobs and Ray Kroc?

Apple and McDonald's were both born of true grit. Just see the movies.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2017

Just watched two films about business founders in quick succession. The first was Danny Boyle’s ‘Steve Jobs,’ the second Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc in ‘The Founder’ about the creation of McDonald’s. Two world-changing but very different businesses that took on innovative ideas had by other people. (A parts mix up in the production lines would create something interesting. Slice of gherkin in your Beats earpiece, anyone?) Both pieces of work are worth seeing, especially the former which is a minor masterpiece.

Neither individual is portrayed in a sympathetic light. Both are played in the complex shades of grey of the outsider who just won’t fit in. Neither film is an out and out knocking job but the individuals are compelling in the way Satan is in ‘Paradise Lost’ or Macbeth in the Scottish play. Goodness writes white. The devil gets the best lines. Badness can be magnificent. Kroc is a grind-it-out opportunist who stumbles upon the McDonald brothers’ hamburger store in San Bernadino and is enraptured by its efficiency, speed of production and simplicity. Jobs requires little introduction, although it was news to me that he may well have been conceived in Homs.

Both emphasise the cost to the family lives of their obsessive focus on the business. At the heart of the Jobs movie is the extremely dysfunctional relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa. He initially denied paternity and then is shown to have behaved appallingly to both his daughter and her mother. ‘Steve Jobs’ is brilliantly combative with an amazingly punchy script by Aaron Sorkin. The film’s editor said it was like putting together a series of ‘fight sequences.’ Jobs falls out with almost everyone who stands in the way of his vision.

When some protested that Danny Boyle had taken the facts of Jobs’ life to extremes he replied: ‘This was was what Shakespeare used to do. He would take some of the facts about a man of power and he would guess at a lot of the rest and just gotten away at actually getting at the human in it. And that's what's wonderful about the writing I think, is that it acknowledges the people who disliked Steve Jobs, the people he hurt. But in the end, he brings it back to a very simple father-daughter relationship that he [Sorkin]  has to admit that he has made some of the most beautiful things in the world.’ (Hmm. I do like my iPhone 6 very much but i’m not sure if it’s one of the most beautiful things on the planet.)

Kroc’s failings are rather quotidien by comparison (but then who isn’t?) - he tires of his wife who just wants a quiet life at the country club and makes off with the piano-playing missus of one of his franchisees. The accepted line with both films seems to be that if you want something remarkable created then don’t expect the individual behind it to be normal/nice/kind/balanced.

What you are left with, in both cases, is a massive, global and wildly successful corporation but one which has been created at a human price. Kroc appears oblivious to this, sneering at the lack of ambition and drive of the McDonalds brothers from whom he got the idea and with whom he falls out very badly. Jobs is far more nuanced. Those who knew him say he calmed down a lot after Apple’s wild success and become a more rounded person. But that restless drive never left him.

The key, I’d suggest, to understanding both individuals is summed up in a scene near the end of ‘The Founder.’ Kroc is pictured late in his life, comfortable in Beverly Hills. He is doing his bow tie in a mirror about to be taken by limo to an event where he is speaking in front of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.

‘Nothing in the world can take the place of good old persistence,’ Kroc insists, admiring himself and his insight. 'Talent won’t. Nothing’s more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius won’t; unrecognised genius is practically a cliche. Education won’t; the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all powerful.’

This is true. In the absence of any other visible talent the one thing you could agree that Trump has is the elephant hide of the determined individual - no imagination, no class, no kindness, no real intelligence but persistence by the bucket load.

And I’ve little doubt that either Jobs or Kroc would have made an infinitely superior US president to the current incumbent.

Image credit: promotional shots from Steve Jobs (2015, Universal Pictures) and The Founder (2016, The Weinstein Company) and the magic of Photoshop.

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