When it came to writing the screenplay for the new movie, Chappaquiddick, you might say that Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan had the perfect pedigree. Both grew up in the Dallas area, where the specter of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy hovered like a shadow over their childhoods.
Both were born in the 1980s — Logan is 35, Taylor is 34 — but it was impossible to escape the reality that a U.S. president was gunned down in their hometown on Nov. 22, 1963.
Barely five years later, the Kennedy legacy took yet another dark turn, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove his black Oldsmobile off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. His passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a loyal campaign secretary to fallen brother Robert F. Kennedy, died in the crash. Inexplicably, Ted Kennedy failed to seek help or report the incident for more than nine hours.
As writer Dan Zak put it so aptly in The Washington Post, "For those of a certain age, Chappaquiddick is the sound of a Camelot made of sand, dragged away by the tide."
It happened in July 1969, 13 months after Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.
In a Shakespearean twist, 37-year-old Ted Kennedy drove the car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, two nights before Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon, fulfilling John F. Kennedy's most ambitious dream.
So, how did writers so young become attracted to the lore of the Kennedys?
"I think it's impossible to avoid. Growing up in Dallas, you pass through Dealey Plaza all the time," says Allen, who graduated from R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton. "I think because of the tragedy that happened there, my parents and their friends always tried to show their love for the Kennedy family, to mitigate the bad aura that had been created in Dallas."
Logan, who graduated from DeSoto High School, says "the legacy of the Kennedy family was inescapable."
The two share what Allen calls the intersection between "politics, history and film." They got to know each other as film majors at the University of Texas at Austin, where in an earlier era, Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson struck up a partnership, and Renée Zellweger got to be friends with Matthew McConaughey.
Allen remembers going to the AMC Grand to see the 2000 film Thirteen Days, which sticks to the truth in telling the story about JFK's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Thirteen Days had the effect of turning him away from an earlier appreciation of Oliver Stone's JFK, which he calls "an unquestioned cinematic achievement but one that unfortunately peddles in conspiracy."
Allen's epiphany about JFK was, he says, a turning point, which took the filmmakers down the path they followed in writing Chappaquiddick.
Their resolve has not gone unnoticed by critics. Seventy-eight percent of them have liked the film, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes.
"Taylor and I wanted the truth to be the north star in telling our story," Logan says. "To that end, we ended up using a court transcript as our primary source."
But not just any transcript. This one is more than 1,000 pages long. The screenwriters see the transcript as "the Rosetta stone" that wipes away Chappaquiddick conspiracy theories and opens a door to a riveting understanding of what really happened on a hot, breezeless night after a party attended by six men and six women, who drank rum, vodka and scotch.
In the end, the screenwriters conclude that Ted Kennedy must have assumed Kopechne was dead moments after the crash took place. (He later claimed he did make an effort to save her.)
But evidence now indicates she may have survived as long as two hours because of an air bubble in the vehicle.
So why did he not make more of an effort? Why did he wait so long before going to authorities? As The Washington Post story asks, was he "drowning in dread?"
"Had he known she might have been able to be saved, I have no doubt his conscience would have compelled him to report the accident right away," Allen says.
As Kennedy wrote in his 2009 posthumous memoir: "I made terrible decisions. I've had to live with that guilt for 40 years."
Before and after his moment on the bridge, he was, Logan says, "a man who had a lot of internal conflicts about his place in the world."
He feared for his life, that he too would suffer the same fate as his brothers. But did he even want to be president? Consider, for instance, his speechless reaction when newscaster Roger Mudd asked him in 1980, during his failed run for the Democratic nomination: "Why do you want to be president?"
He felt deeply overshadowed by towering siblings, in particular JFK, who had his own existential moment in the water, when his PT-109 naval vessel was sunk by the Japanese during World War II. The elder Kennedy rose to the level of sainted war hero in rescuing his fellow sailors.
The screenwriters call the PT-109 incident the beginning of the myth of Camelot and the tragedy of Chappaquiddick its complete unraveling.
Ironically, friends of theirs recently wrote a screenplay titled Mayday 109, about the more noble Kennedy story.
The real tragedy of Chappaquiddick, of course, was the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who grew up an Irish Catholic girl from New Jersey, the only child of a homemaker and a life-insurance salesman.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, newspapers had trouble spelling her name. One wire service handled the headline this way: "Ted safe; blonde dies."
The screenwriters are thrilled that Kopechne's family likes and appreciates the film as the tribute their daughter never had. Actress Kate Mara shines in portraying Kopechne.
And yet, despite his Hamlet-like reluctance, one has to wonder how Ted Kennedy would have fared had Chappaquiddick never happened.
"I find it hard to imagine," Allen says, "that the 1972 presidential election would not have been between Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon," who beat George McGovern in a landslide less than five months after the Watergate break-in that led to his resignation.
"Chappaquiddick," Allen says, "changed presidential history."
And, Logan says, "American history."