As much as anyone in history, Mandela understood the power of imagery to persuade, and of sports to unite. In the World Cup and the Springboks he had both. The team did its part by winning.

With Eastwood's ability for distilling complicated situations, the film becomes a tangible expression of one of Mandela's guiding tenets — to be more compassionate, more forgiving, more inclusive than those who came before him.

Better at capturing Mandela's voice, and his intellect, was Joe Sargent's 1997 TV movie "Mandela and De Klerk," starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine. In Poitier's performance you sense the steel it took to survive; there is more fire in this Mandela than most, and the soul of the peacemaker who would share the Nobel Prize with De Klerk in 1993.

But for the most part, directors wanted Mandela for Mandela. He is prolifically represented in the documentary world via news footage and through the impressions and insights of others. Though there were any number of films on his early life, prison years and release, it is his post-prison voice — one of inspiration and reason — that you hear most often.

PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela through the years

Mandela was a man of the people, thronged wherever he went. Yet he had a gift for making those public moments intimate. There is an accessibility — emotionally, intellectually, literally — in clip after clip. Whether he is grasping the outstretched hand of a stranger on the street, speaking to thousands, conversing with world leaders, bending to talk to children, there is a singular focus that is riveting.

As you watch the footage culled by documentarians through the years, there are significant changes too. The fist that was so often raised in defiance during the early days of the apartheid resistance comes to rest more often against his forehead in his later years. It is a more contemplative look, almost prayerful, and it speaks to the reconciliation that he made his life's work. The smile deepens, the eyes soften, the hair goes completely white.

The dignity is carried with even more grace in his final days, the cane he gripped a reminder that at heart, he was human.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the most creatively ambitious film about Mandela's life arrived in theaters just days before his death. The timing certainly increased the expectations for "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." The film, directed by Justin Chadwick, a Brit who seems to be making stories of Africa his métier, stars Idris Elba in the title role and Naomie Harris as his most controversial wife, Winnie.

It is written by the well-seasoned William Nicholson, who has Oscar nominations for "Gladiator" and "Shadowlands." And there is talk that Elba's performance could be an Oscar contender. Though the actor comes closer than most to capturing Mandela's spirit on screen, once again it proves impossible to outshine the man. History is etched in that face, a force and a legacy in its creases that even the coming years cannot dim.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com